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“Dodo-Goldilocks” trench dug by the Phoenix Lander.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University

Jun 20, 2008

The Search for Water on Mars Continues

No indications of water vapor are in the soil samples excavated by the Phoenix lander.

On June 11, 2008, NASA conducted the first experiment designed to detect water on Mars. After digging what the researchers from the University of Arizona refer to as a “practice trench” approximately seven centimeters deep, the robot arm onboard Phoenix tipped the sample into the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer. Although there was a false-start due to clumping of the rock dust, the TEGA was finally able to bake the material at 35º C in an attempt to drive off any volatile compounds, especially water vapor. No water was detected.

After the first evaluation, the soil was heated to 175º C, but to no avail. William Boynton, team leader in charge of the TEGA package, said he was not surprised by the null result because the sample “sat out in the Martian sun for several days” and any water ice most likely sublimed into the thin atmosphere.

Early next week, researchers will command the TEGA to raise its oven temperature to 1000º C so that any water “chemically bound” to the compounds in the soil will be released. Said Boynton: "We expect there's a high probability that we would find minerals with chemically-bound water, which would release their water at higher temperatures." They also hope that the mass spectrometer package will see traces of sulfur dioxide or carbon dioxide in the mix, an indication that water once reacted with the minerals on Mars.

A piece of the white substance in the bottom of the trench was left by the robotic scoop, so NASA will be watching it to see if it changes over time. It might be ice according their hypothesis, so if it shrinks in size it could be due to sublimation. The atmosphere on Mars is so dry and so tenuous that ice will not enter its liquid phase out in the open but instead evaporates into gas.

As previous Thunderbolts Picture of the Day articles have stressed, there is probably no water on Mars so the white chunk is most likely broken from a layer of salt or from other minerals like those discovered at lower latitudes. The forces that dumped the deposits on Mars were global. Phoenix mission analysts are in a “wait and see” mode but we predict that the small wedge of rock will not sublime.

Phoenix will soon begin digging another trench in one of the polygonal shapes that are visible for many kilometers around its landing site. Planetary scientists have suggested that the polygons are similar to what can be found in the Arctic tundra where “frost heave” sorts stones and permanently frozen ground into regular contours. Expansion and contraction of subsurface ice could have done the same thing on Mars, so NASA has preserved the location while they conducted their practice drills in less crucial real estate.

Mars is rich in silicon dioxide and magnesium sulfate. Both chemical compounds are white and crystalline so they look something like ice when formed into slabs. The Opportunity rover found expanses of silicon dioxide (quartzite) covering many square kilometers as it slowly made its way to the rim of Victoria Crater. NASA scientists refer to Martian quartzite blocks as “cobbles” and “pavement” because they resemble sidewalks and concrete roadways here on Earth.

The Spirit rover suffered a breakdown in one of its drive wheels about two years ago, causing it to drag rather than roll smoothly. The mechanical failure was actually a boon in one respect – as the wheel plowed through the dust and sand it uncovered a layer of bright white soil that was subsequently identified as magnesium sulfate. Neither rover detected water, although some observations led the science teams to believe that water once existed on Mars.

Spacecraft in orbit around the Red Planet have returned images of what appear to be water features. Previous Picture of the Day articles have taken issue with that interpretation, however. “Ancient glaciers”, “oceans” and “fast flowing torrents” of water probably never existed on Mars. NASA scientists do not concede that electricity is capable of creating structures and terrain that look like they were carved by liquid, so no other hypothesis is available to them.

The remnant topography on Mars is not rounded or softened as if by a deluge, nor does it conform to slow weathering by rainfall or blowing dust. The formations are sharp, angular and fresh looking, as if they were sculpted quickly and with tremendous force.

The northern latitudes, in particular, appear to have been obliterated. In fact, Electric Universe theorist Wal Thornhill has written that the northern region of Mars was the scene of a cosmic plasma storm that electrically sputtered millions of square kilometers out of the crust, subsequently redistributing the finely divided dust all over the rest of the planet as well as hurling it into space.

In such a cataclysmic event, all the water ice that might have once existed on Mars would have been disintegrated and blasted away, never to return.

By Stephen Smith

Please visit our new "Thunderblog" page

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The Electric Sky and The Electric Universe available now!


Authors David Talbott and Wallace Thornhill introduce the reader to an age of planetary instability and earthshaking electrical events in ancient times. If their hypothesis is correct, it could not fail to alter many paths of scientific investigation.

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Professor of engineering Donald Scott systematically unravels the myths of the "Big Bang" cosmology, and he does so without resorting to black holes, dark matter, dark energy, neutron stars, magnetic "reconnection", or any other fictions needed to prop up a failed theory.

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In language designed for scientists and non-scientists alike, authors Wallace Thornhill and David Talbott show that even the greatest surprises of the space age are predictable patterns in an electric universe.

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Steve Smith, Mel Acheson
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