NASA Looks for Life on Mars

NASA is launching a spacecraft this weekend and the destination is Mars. NASA's Phoenix Mission will send a sort of scouting device, a robotic lander designed to look for evidence of life on the red planet. Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson reports.

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NASA's Phoenix Mission is headed for the polar caps of Mars. The Phoenix will be lauched this Saturday and will take about nine months to travel there before landing in May of next year. Paul Niles is a member of the Phoenix Science Team, which is the group that will be analysing geological and chemical data from the lander. He's says they're hoping to find an ice layer underneath the surface and hopefully the presence of organic material frozen in the ice.

"What we expect is that on Mars, even if there was no life, there are meteorites that land on Mars every day and we know that in meteorites there is organic material. So we expect to find organic matter on Mars. It should be there."

The Phoenix lander will actually dig through the top-soil layer and pull up samples of soil and hopefully ice from a few feet down. Those samples will then be processed in what amounts to a high-temperature oven. NASA will receive the data and Niles and the rest of the team will analyze the contents. But first they have to make sure they're not analyzing the wrong organics, because the Phoenix lander will likely have small amounts of Earth's organic matter attached to it.

"It's very difficult to make an organic-free instrument or spacecraft. So whenever we analyze something, it's going to have a little bit of background organic material. And we're not exactly sure how much because there's going to be some on the robotic arm and there's going to be some on all the surfaces. So this is a Class 100 Clean Room. And one of the things we helped develop is this organic-free blank, which is as organic-free material we could find that has the right physical properties."

That so-called blank is a small piece of material similar to ceramic. The material, called Makor, was designed by Corning for NASA to use on this project. The Makor will be ground into a powder and coat the surfaces of the robotic arm and the ovens, covering over any of the Earth's organic material that might be on the spacecraft. But of course, all of the precautions are hinged on the hope of actually finding ice, liquid water or life on Mars.

"Based on previous results, we're not sure what to expect. I don't think most scientists would say that there's large liklihood that we will find life present at this landing site. But I think, there is certainly a good chance."

The Phoenix lander will last in the Mars atmosphere for about three months. And the technology aboard the spacecraft only allows scientists to collect a total of eight samples from the subsurface of the planet. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.

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