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Video: Just like the movies: Phoenix's trip to Mars

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updated 8/4/2008 2:23:24 PM ET 2008-08-04T18:23:24

Rumblings in the media suggest some intriguing findings from NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander mission that relate to the question of life, specifically whether it could have survived on Mars in the past.

The issue bubbled up when it was reported Friday that the White House had been briefed about some interesting results from Phoenix's wet chemistry laboratory, part of the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer suite of instruments, also known as MECA.

Not so, says Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith, of the University of Arizona, who denied that any details of the MECA findings had been shared and called the reports "bogus and damaging information."

The Aviation Week & Space Technology report came on the heels of Thursday's announcement from NASA that Phoenix had confirmed the presence of water ice at its landing site in Mars' arctic regions, first detected in 2002 by NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. MECA team members were not present at the press briefing at which the water-ice announcement was made.

Kept out of view?
"The goal [of having no MECA team members present] was to prevent them from being asked any questions that could reveal information before NASA is ready to make an announcement, sources say," the Aviation Week article said, adding that, "The Bush Administration's Presidential Science Advisor's office, however, has been briefed on the new information that NASA hopes to release as early as mid-August."

Smith told Space.com that this was "not true, MECA results have not been discussed at the White House."

"There is no one who knows either on the [Phoenix] project in Tucson or at [NASA] HQ who knows where this information came from," Smith said in a subsequent e-mail.

Smith also said that the MECA team was not present at the Thursday briefing because "they had nothing new to report, the story was about water ice."

(The White House Office for Science and Technology Policy told msnbc.com that the Aviation Week report was erroneous. "We do not know of any briefing from NASA to OSTP about science results from Mars Phoenix," said Kristin Scuderi, the spokeswoman for the science adviser's office. She acknowledged, however, that policy analysts in the office may occasionally get updates about space missions, conceivably including the Phoenix Mars Lander mission.)

Sorting out the reports
When the writer of the Aviation Week story, Craig Covault, was contacted by Space.com, he attributed much of the confusion and media hubbub to other news outlets picking up his story and mistakenly reporting that his article said that NASA had discovered life on Mars.

"Note the [Aviation Week] story said very, very clearly three times or so, NO life on Mars detected and Phoenix can NOT [detect life] in the first place," Covault wrote in an email.

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Slideshow: Month in Space Instead, Covault quoted scientists as saying that the White House had been alerted about plans to announce discoveries concerning the "potential for life" on Mars. The unnamed sources were quoted as saying the results invole how soil and water interact at the Phoenix landing site and what that interaction might say about Mars' habitability.

Smith said the results from the analysis of the second soil sample in MECA's wet chemistry lab didn't have any bearing on the question of Mars' past habitability "in any direct way."

"We are attempting to assess the chemicals and minerals that make up the soil composition," he explained. "We are now about halfway through the process and there are several conflicting points of view. This is not a good time to go public with half the story."

Covault said that he stands by his story and noted that his piece mentioned the ongoing review of MECA data.

‘Tasting’ Martian dirt
The wet chemistry laboratory has four teacup-sized beakers, each used only once. Samples of the Martian dirt are place in a beaker and mixed with water brought from Earth.

Sensors on the inner surface of the beakers act like electronic tongues and "taste" the dirt to detect salts that can dissolve in water. The sensors can also detect the pH of the surface.

All of this information gives scientists a picture of what the surface layer of dirt looks like now and whether or not it might have been a habitable area at some point in the planet's past.

MECA's first analysis showed that the Martian regolith contained several soluble minerals necessary for life, including potassium, magnesium and chloride. The surface also had an alkaline pH, which on Earth is suitable for growing some plants, such as asparagus. The second sample, currently being analyzed, was delivered to the instrument on July 7.

This report was supplemented by msnbc.com.

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