Phoenix Lander Prepares to Taste Martian Dirt
The wet chemistry laboratory on NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander has four teacup-size beakers such as this one. The laboratory is part of the spacecraft's Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA).
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA

NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander is gearing up to perform its first taste test of the red planet's arctic dirt.

Scientists plan to use the spacecraft?s wet chemistry lab, part of Phoenix's suite of tools called the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer, or MECA, to test Mars' dirt for salts, acidity, minerals and conductivity.

In preparation for the experiment Phoenix melted some ice it brought from earth into liquid water.

"We are good to go," said lead MECA scientist Michael Hecht of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We made liquid water on Mars for the first time for our test."

Over the next few days, mission scientists plan to tell the probe to dissolve samples of Mars' dirt in water inside beakers the size of teacups. After soaking and stirring, Phoenix will measure various characteristics of the solution to learn about the properties of the dirt.

Phoenix carries four beakers, each of which can be used only once, to study Martian dirt. The inside of each beaker is coated with 26 sensors and is designed as a sort of ?electronic tongue? to taste red planet material, NASA officials have said.

"The water in the wet-chemistry cell is frozen, and before we do an experiment we have to make sure that it's totally thawed," Phoenix co-investigator Sam Kounaves of Tufts University, wet chemistry laboratory lead, said. "It's like pouring a known amount of water from a beaker when you're doing a chemistry experiment ? you have to use all the water for your experiment to work."

Launched in August 2007, Phoenix landed in the northern polar regions of Mars on May 25 to begin what is now a planned four-month mission to hunt for buried water ice and determine if the area could have once been habitable for primitive life. The probe carries cameras, a scoop-tipped robotic arm, weather station and ovens in addition to its wet chemistry lab.

Last week, mission scientists announced that Phoenix?s cameras caught a glimpse of water ice evaporating over a series of days in a trench carved by the probe?s robotic arm.

Phoenix is slated to spend today analyzing a scoop of Martian dirt from a set of trenches, which scientists have christened "Snow White," under its optical microscope.