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Signs of Life

Signs of Life Associate Professor of Chemistry Sam Kounaves, co-investigator on NASA's current mission to Mars, gains media attention as he shares news of the mission's preliminary testing results.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [06.30.08] A month after its safe arrival on the Red Planet, NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander has put Tufts and Associate Professor Sam Kounaves back in the spotlight to discuss its initial findings.

Landing on the planet on May 25, Phoenixhas since tested portions of the soil to determine its characteristics and whether it could support life.

"There is nothing about [the soil] that would preclude life," mission co-investigator Kounaves told the Los Angeles Times. "Some types of life would be happy to live in these soils."

In fact, Kounaves told The New York Times that the sample soil was similar to "the type of soil you'd probably have in your backyard." Containing most of the nutrients needed for successful plant growth, Kounaves told the Washington Post that it would "probably grow asparagus, but not strawberries."

Though the soil chemistry can support plant life, the Los Angeles Times reported that "any future crops would have to be grown underground, because the meager atmosphere lets in too much of the sun's destructive ultraviolet rays."

Phoenix, which hosts the first "wet" chemistry lab to land on Mars, used its analyzers to "moisten samples and then superheat them to the point that the component elements can be analyzed," Kounaves told the Washington Post. Chemicals identified include magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride.

The pH level of the soil, he told The New York Times, was between 8 and 9, on a 0 to 14 scale.

"A lot of people predicted the soil would be acidic," Kounaves told the L.A. Times. "We're showing at this location it appears alkaline. But we're only looking at a tiny area."

Despite determiningthat the soil tested is "friendly," Phoenix has not found any carbon-based organic material in combination with nitrogen, hydrogen and other elements, which would indicate whether or not the planet once was, or still is, habitable.

"We're not looking for evidence for life at this point," Kounaves said in an interview on NBC's Today. "What we're doing this mission is studying, first of all, to understand the history of the water and of the climate of Mars, and then we're also looking for the ability of the soil of Mars to support life.So, what it tells us is that the soil could have supported life, and can support life, and maybe in the future."

Kounaves says that watching what the Phoenix Mars Lander is capable of is extraordinary in its own right.

"It's amazing," he told Today. "I think people don't understand the amazing technology... that we have to do this, to think about a spacecraft, a robotic spacecraft, a robotic lab assistant sitting on Mars, after a 400 million mile trip, that it's taking samples. Every day we give it commands, it does its analysis, returns it to Earth and it's just amazing that we can do this."

The next step of the three-month mission is to dig deeper into the thick, ice-like surface and continue testing.

"So far, we've found nothing extreme," Kounaves told the Washington Post. "It's amazingly similar to what you might find on Earth."

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