Edited to add: As usual, Emily has a ton of really gnarly info on Phoenix and this press conference. Why read my stuff about Mars when you can read hers?
Yay, great news: the Mars Phoenix lander crew just announced that the mission – originally designed to last 90 days and which is already two months in – will go on for an extra month, extended until at least the end of September 2008. They have enough power to last them for a while after summer, so it can continue to do cool science until its power runs out.
They’ll use this extra time to dig two new trenches, strategically located in lower spots near the fixed lander where wind brings in material and ice can persist for longer periods of time.
Also, they announced that they were able to get a sample of ice from the surface into the ovens! That means they can cook it and investigate the samples to learn about Martian chemistry. There wasn’t much ice in the sample, but enough to look at; it’ll be a while before they can get a full analysis of it.
And I hate to talk about this next bit, but I have to. There were some rumors floating around yesterday that NASA would announce that Phoenix confirmed the presence of water ice on Mars. This rumor made me laugh– we’ve known about this ice being water (and not, say, frozen CO2 or some other substance) for quite some time. What Phoenix can do is confirm this, but that’s basically just a further confirmation of something we already were pretty sure about. It was also claimed by one source that this would be the first confirmation of ice “beyond Earth”, which is plain wrong: we have definite confirmation of water ice in comets, which has been known for years. We also have direct measurements of ice on and in Saturn’s moons Enceladus, Phoebe, and in the rings, too.
So yeah, there’s water ice on Mars. But the final irony is that the press conference didn’t even really talk about this, so the rumors are really just that: rumors.
I dislike rumors like this, because they tend to be wrong, and build up an excitement that is bound to disappoint when the real news comes out. And when they’re right – which is very, very rare – they take away from the actual announcement. But the Search for the Scoop (in this case, that’s literal since Phoenix uses a scoop to gather up the Martian samples) will sometimes take control.
But I won’t let this detract from the real news here: Phoenix will have more time to work on Mars. That means more time to look around, more time to scoop up the alien surface, and more time to extend our reach to other worlds. And that is no rumor. That’s scientific fact.