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May 27, 2010

News From the Martin Arctic

In this last week, there have been two news stories worth reporting from the North Pole of Mars.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
The Phoenix Mars Lander was a huge success. It was a small lander that was designed to find water ice at high latitudes on Mars. We originally lost contact with Phoenix in November of 2008. Phoenix was not built to survive the Martian winter, but some people were optimistic that it might have survived, possibly because of boosted optimism from the Mars rovers. Orbiters were listening as the ice receded form Mars northern latitudes. No signal was heard and now we know why.

The two pictures above show the extensive damage Phoenix took during the Martin winter. On the image from 2008 you can see both solar panels reflecting that blue color. In the image taken this year shows that one of the solar panels has completely broken off. This is probably from the buildup of dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide) until the weight of it caused the solar panel to break. So while Phoenix may have done great science, it was not able to rise from the ice.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
The other story has to do with the weird shape of Mars north pole. Looking at the picture on the left you can see the large spiral pattern. In the past planetary scientists had purposed many ideas including volcanism and glacial flows. Two new papers published in the journal Nature bring a strong new idea to the table: wind.

The details of the effect are a little technical for me to dive into here, but I did want to make some points about the research. I like to point out when scientists build models that make predictions and then either confirm or dispute their hypothesis with new evidence. In this case, they came up a model of what they thought a wind carved feature would look like. When the data came in, they found it matched their models. The scientists working this research also reported their results responsibly. They published in a peer-reviewed journal and didn't make any absolute statements. Jack Holt of The University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Geophysics said “We aren't saying they were carved by wind, rather that wind had a strong role in their formation and evolution.” I think these scientists did a great job and found a really cool result. This is science at its best.

*If you do want a more detailed breakdown of their work, I recommend Universe Today