Digging, probing, soil analyses
Scientists can reconstitute the history of Mars by studying its geology. Some of the instruments needed for that purpose are designed to dig, probe and analyze the surface soil and beneath. By learning more about Martian geology, we can better understand the Earth's own history and evolution by comparison.
For instance, the Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer's (MECA) wet chemistry lab aboard the Phoenix Mars Lander tastes samples of Martian soil by dissolving them in water. It is capable of measuring the acidity in the soil and its mineralogical composition.
The Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA) studies the Martian soil in a different manner to reveal other properties. It gradually heats the samples up to 1000 degrees Celsius to study the change from the solid to the liquid state and to the gaseous state. The presence of ice, for instance, can be detected in a sample by measuring the amount of energy it takes to heat the sample (if there is ice, it will require more energy).
The latest Martian probes are generally equipped with spectrometers, microscopes and organic chemistry laboratories to give us more information about the oxidized soil of our planetary neighbor.
Mysteries of the atmosphere
Atmospheric science studies variations in a planet's atmosphere, magnetosphere and ionosphere. The study of the Earth's atmospheric environment has given Canada solid experience that can now be used to study the atmospheres of other planets in the solar system, beginning with Mars.
This Canadian expertise was put to work with the Phoenix Mars Lander mission. A Canadian laser detection instrument called a lidar was sent to Mars aboard the Phoenix Mars Lander mission to unveil the mysteries of Mars's atmosphere. The lidar studied the lower atmosphere by looking at the clouds and aerial dust particles. A green light signal was emitted up to 20 kilometres above the landing site, up to three times a day, for a 15-minute period. The lidar measured the height and composition of particles in the atmosphere to learn more about the clouds, fog and dust.
The Canadian weather station (the MET) on the Mars Phoenix Lander also helped us to better understand the atmosphere thanks to the temperature, pressure, and wind data gathered. This will help to develop and refine Martian weather models that will be useful not only for future missions to Mars, but also to better understand our Earth.
Astrobiology, also known as exobiology, is the science that studies the possibility that life exists elsewhere than on Earth.
Confirmation that there is or once was life on other celestial bodies in the solar system would be of unprecedented scientific interest. Canadian scientists have and are studying meteorites of Martian origin as part of several missions, including the Phoenix Mars Lander, and they have confirmed the presence of water on the Red Planet. The next step in the international exploration of Mars is to search for signs of life with the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission!
The presence of water makes scientists believe that life as we know it might be possible on Mars. Ongoing and upcoming missions are examining the Martian soil composition to establish whether the elements necessary to life on Earth exist on Mars. This would be another step in determining Mars' habitability potential – its capability of sustaining life – and, possibly, discovering previous forms of life (most likely in microbial form).
A NASA research team of scientists has found evidence that strongly suggests primitive life may have existed on Mars in a Martian meteorite found on Earth. According to several scientists, the rod-like structures seen here would be a fossilized form of Martian life.
(Credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center)
Artist's impression of water under the Martian surface. If underground aquifers really do exist, the implications for human exploration and eventual colonization of the red planet would be far-reaching.