Phoenix lander confirms that water exists on Mars

After years of proposing, theorizing and deducing that there is water on Mars – at least in the form of ice – NASA scientists said they have finally confirmed it, after the Phoenix lander detected traces of water vapor wafting off a scoop of Martian dirt, researchers said Thursday.

“It's something we've been waiting quite a while for,” said William Boynton of the University of Arizona, describing how a tiny “oven” on the lander heated the dirt until ice mixed with it evaporated. “We've now finally touched it and tasted it.”

Earlier Mars expeditions had indicated that at least in the past, water existed on Mars – a key issue for scientists, since on Earth, liquid water is a key prerequisite for life.

In the 1970s, photos seemed to show channels on the Red Planet's surface, a possible indication that water had flowed there before the atmosphere cooled.

In 2002, observations by an orbiting probe found evidence of vast amounts of water locked up in ice below the surface.

Then, after the Phoenix Mars Lander touched down May 25, researchers said it had provided solid evidence of water.

But that was a deduction: The lander's camera showed a group of small chunks, and then it didn't. Researchers concluded that it was ice that had evaporated.

Thursday, they said they had proof.

The probe, which includes implements for scooping and gouging the Martian surface, had cooked a dirt sample in a special oven, and the scientists noted that a bit of the sample evaporated around the usual freezing point of water.

“The fact that it melted at zero degrees Celsius leaves very little doubt that it is standard water ice,” Boynton said. He said sensors also tested the chemical makeup of the vapor and found the familiar combination of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.

Boynton put on a witch's hat at the news conference Thursday at the University of Arizona, joking that the water had melted just like the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Also Thursday, NASA announced that the Phoenix mission, originally planned to finish in late August, would be extended through the end of September, costing about $2 million, a NASA official said.