Phoenix Mars Mission Team to Conduct Research in Antarctica
Scientists will study the ice-soil boundary in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

By Chelsea Hodson, Phoenix Mission/UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory
Dec. 14, 2007


Peter Smith of The University of Arizona, Phoenix Mars Mission principal investigator, is leading a six-member expedition to Antarctica in December and January to conduct polar research to prepare for Phoenix’s science operations on Mars in summer 2008.

The five-week trip, sponsored by the NASA International Polar Year, or IPY, program, will allow Smith and his team to conduct research in a climate similar to Mars’.

The team will investigate in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, where they hope to find ice-free surface. The surface of the dry valleys is cracked into polygonal structures that are similar to the ones on Mars, Smith said.

The team is taking a wet chemistry lab (known as Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer, or MECA), microscopes and shovels to take samples. All of the tools are similar in structure to the ones being used on the Phoenix Mars Mission.

Smith and his team will dig 8 to 10 inches to reach the ice-soil boundary, an inch-wide area – half in the soil, half in the ice – that Smith said has barely been researched.

“People typically go straight through it or they look above it. But we’re looking right at that boundary,” Smith said.

“We want to get a library of information on this ice-soil boundary for all those conditions and all the different things we encounter. That gives us something to help us think about how to do our experiments on Mars,” he said.

The UA-led Phoenix Mars Mission is en route to Mars’ northern plains. After arriving on May 25 scientists on earth will use instruments on the lander to study the Martian water-ice layer and the planet’s atmosphere.

Because of water’s role in chemical change, Smith said he and his team will be paying attention to the minerals, chemistry and the biology of the ice-soil boundary, an area where ice alternates between melting and freezing each year.

"We think the biology there might be really interesting,” Smith said.

The team includes:

  • Chris McKay, NASA Ames Research Center biologist.
  • Aaron Zent, from the Phoenix TEGA team and the NASA Ames Research Center.
  • Sam Kounaves, from the Phoenix MECA team and Tufts University.
  • Doug Ming, from the Phoenix TEGA team and the NASA Johnson Space Center.
  • Susanne Douglas, a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory biologist.

The Phoenix research team is one of 30 U.S. teams and 100 teams worldwide conducting research for IPY, which is a two-year event that began in March. The two-year period allows researchers to conduct two annual observing cycles in each polar region.

Smith and his team flew from Tucson to a provisions station in Christ Church, New Zealand, where they received the supplies they need to endure Antarctica’s climate.

Next, they are scheduled to fly into McMurdo Station, Antarctica, an American station where the team will learn about survival in the polar region.

The team will spend three weeks camping in the valleys to study the ice-soil boundary.

Kounaves said studying Antarctica’s dry valleys is helpful for understanding climate change.

“It will allow us to understand the signature of climate variability as written into the soils and to quantify the abundance of life’s building blocks there and at the ice-soil boundary,” he said.

After studying the ice-soil boundary, the team will travel to a higher valley where the ice has never melted in the past 8 million years. In this location, the scientists will see what the ice-soil boundary looks like in a place where liquid water does not exist.

“We hope to be able to contribute to understanding the origin of the subsurface ice which has been reported to be over 8 million years old in some places,” Kounaves said.

The team returns Jan. 11.

IPY was established by the International Council for Science and the World Meteorological Organization to recognize the 125th anniversary of the first polar year and the 50th anniversary of the International Geophysical Year.

For more information about the International Polar Year, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/IPY/main/index.html.

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Sara Hammond

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shammond@lpl.arizona.edu