The Solar System Is All Washed Up
Surface Liquid On Titan, Water Vapor On Mercury and Water Ice On Mars
This is a major discovery, even if it isn’t completely unexpected.
In a discovery that could qualify as one of the most important in the history of space exploration, NASA’s Phoenix Mission may have confirmed the presence of water ice on the planet, Popular Mechanics has learned. The scheduling of a press conference for Thursday at 2 p.m. Eastern by NASA and the University of Arizona has raised hopes in the space community that scientists will announce the breakthrough. When pressed for details, a spokesperson for the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory refused to elaborate beyond saying that the Phoenix team would unveil new findings from the ongoing robotic mission to Mars. If the rumor holds true, it would be the first direct confirmation of water ice beyond Earth.
Oh, it’s true, alright.
UPDATE (2:13 p.m., July 31): As PopularMechanics.com first reported here, scientists from NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and Texas A&M have just officially announced at a press conference that soil samples taken by Phoenix on Mars is water ice.
UPDATE (2:16 p.m.): Researchers described champagne corks popping in the downlink room yesterday as the data indicated that the sample was water ice.
UPDATE (2:18 p.m.): “We’ve now finally touched and tasted it,” oven instrument’s lead scientist William Boyton, of the University of Arizona said. “From my standpoint it tastes very fine.”
It is, of course, most significant that it was right below the surface, covered only by a thin layer of Martian surface dust that blew off in places when the Phoenix landed on top of it. And oh yes, the chances of finding evidence of (past?) microbial life on Mars just went way up.
Here’s a preview, though. Assuming the evidence for life, past or present, on Mars is found, then the next big question will be “From where did it come – the earth or outside the Solar System?” My guess is that my granddaughter will know the answer. Not I.
Even still, raising the possibility of finding life is not the most important aspect of this story. You see, water can be broken down into exactly two components – hydrogen and oxygen. They have other common names – rocket fuel, for instance. Getting to Mars is hard, but returning from there just got a whole lot easier.
There’s been concurrent news from deep space. The Cassini mission orbiting Saturn has provided proof that the radar-dark places detected on the surface of the Solar System’s largest moon, Titan, are lakes. That is, they are liquid – not water, but quiescent liquid, made of ethane mixed with propane and butane. Don’t strike a match there. And in case you’re keeping count, the number of places in the Solar System known to have surface liquids is now — two.
And if that wasn’t enough, The Baltimore Sun reported traces of water were found by Messenger in it’s January flyby of Mercury.
Instruments aboard a Maryland-built spacecraft that soared past the planet Mercury in January have provided a real surprise: traces of water molecules in the hot little world’s extremely thin atmosphere, scientists reported yesterday.
It’s not clear where they came from yet, but astronomers suspect that the water molecules are being blasted from the planet’s surface by the solar wind, along with ions of sodium, calcium and magnesium – all clues to the chemical composition of surface material.
“This water is clearly there,” said Thomas H. Zurbuchen, a member of the Messenger science team from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
The discovery is among the first formal findings from Messenger’s initial flyby of Mercury, on Jan. 14. They’re contained in 11 papers published today in the journal Science.
Pretty cool for a planet with a surface temperature of about 750 deg. F.