Soil near the north pole of Mars is surprisingly Earthlike, with a pH not unlike many vegetable gardens, according to preliminary results from the Phoenix Mars Lander.
"You might be able to grow asparagus in it, but strawberries, probably not very well," said Samuel Kounaves, a chemistry professor at Tufts University, during a NASA press conference this afternoon.
Some Martian dirt has the same basic chemistry as garden soil, a new analysis from the Phoenix lander suggests. The find widens the range of organisms that might be able to live on Mars.
Although the analysis is not yet complete, the lander has already found trace levels of nutrients like magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride. Although these ingredients were known to exist in Martian soil, until now no one was sure whether they would be soluble in water and thus potentially available for life.
The encouraging result came from a test of soil excavated from the top few centimetres of a region called Wonderland at the lander's site in the northern plains of Mars. The sample was delivered on Wednesday to the lander's wet chemistry laboratory in the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA) instrument.
In addition to detecting soluble nutrients, MECA also found the sample to be fairly alkaline, with a pH of 8 or 9. This level of alkalinity is common for many Earth soils, and myriad bacteria and plants, including vegetables like asparagus and turnips, can thrive at such a pH. (Exotic terrestrial microbes have even been found in water with pH levels of 12 and higher - similar to bleach.)
"We were all very flabbergasted at the data we got back," said MECA wet chemistry lead Samuel Kounaves from Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, US.