TechWeb

Snow Seen On Mars

Sep 30, 2008 (10:09 AM EDT)

Read the Original Article at http://www.informationweek.com/news/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=210604792


It's snowing on Mars, or to be more precise, in the clouds above Mars.

NASA on Monday reported that its Phoenix Mars Lander had detected snow falling from Martian clouds.

The Phoenix Mars Lander is equipped with a laser instrument that measures how the Martian atmosphere and surface interact. The device detected snow at an altitude of 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) above the Phoenix's landing site, according to NASA.

Future Mars visitors won't have to worry about bringing skis, however: Data shows that the snow turns to vapor before reaching the planet's surface.

NASA spokesperson Guy Webster said that NASA scientists and others working on the news briefing were excited about the observations. "They were also excited about sharing the information with the public, fully appreciating that snow is something most people have stronger feelings about than effects of liquid water on minerals," he said in an e-mail.

Jim Whiteway, an associate professor at York University in Toronto and the lead scientist for the Canadian-supplied Meteorological Station on Phoenix, said in a statement, "Nothing like this view has ever been seen on Mars. We'll be looking for signs that the snow may even reach the ground."

Since its landing on May 25, Phoenix has determined that ice is present in subsurface soil on Mars. NASA scientists are currently trying to determine whether water exists in liquid form on Mars, which would make the Martian environment far more conducive to life.

Phoenix's mission is to study the history of water in the Martian arctic, to search for evidence of a habitable area, and to determine whether the ice-soil boundary area has the potential to support life.

The mission was originally planned to last three months. It is currently in its fifth month. The declining availability of solar energy in the months ahead is expected to put an end to the lander's exploration before the year's end.

"For nearly three months after landing, the sun never went below the horizon at our landing site," said Barry Goldstein, JPL Phoenix project manager, in a statement. "Now it is gone for more than four hours each night, and the output from our solar panels is dropping each week. Before the end of October, there won't be enough energy to keep using the robotic arm."