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Scientists Say Mars Lander Photos Show Ice

By Brian Wagner
20 June 2008

Scientists say new photographs from NASA's Mars lander show the robotic probe has dug up pieces of ice on the planet's surface. In Miami, VOA's Brian Wagner reports, the finding is a strong boost to the mission, which hopes to uncover signs of life on Mars.

Scientists have been focusing on several small, white pieces of material that one of the probe's robot arms uncovered in the planet's soil this week. Photographs from the $420 million probe first revealed the chunks, which are no larger than two centimeters, about five days ago. But pictures transmitted late Thursday show the pieces had vanished, leading scientists to believe it was ice turning into water vapor in the planet's dry atmosphere.

Principal investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona in Tucson, says the finding does not come as a surprise. But the evidence helps prove the substance was not salt, rock or another material.

"It is with great pride and a lot of joy today I announce we have found the proof that we have been seeking that this hard, bright material is water ice and not some other substance," he said.

Mark Lemmon of the University of Texas A&M is studying the photographs taken by the Phoenix lander as it digs into the Martian soil and analyzes materials that it finds. He says the Phoenix team has achieved its first goal of finding water, and now it moves on to the next phase of looking for signs of organic life.

"It's really getting in there and finding what is mixed in with the ice, and finding out to what extent it is a habitable environment," he said. "Those are the questions we will be answering with the full Phoenix payload [capabilities] over the next several weeks."

The Mars probe contains chemistry laboratories, a furnace and other tools to study the composition of materials on the planet's surface. Scientists say one goal of the mission is to find the remains of organic life trapped in the ground ice.

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