independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Mars probe shows red planet's soil ideal for green beans

David Usborne in New York

Bad for strawberries, great for asparagus and turnips. This is the small print for gardening enthusiasts buying a second home on Mars, should the day ever arrive when humans colonise it.

Scientists in charge of analysing soil lifted from the surface of the planet by the NASA space probe Phoenix have admitted to being "flabbergasted" by initial results, which suggest it would theoretically be just about perfect for certain vegetables that thrive in mildly alkaline conditions.

A tiny sample of soil, just one cubic-centimetre was, lifted from the planet's surface with a robotic arm for the test, which was carried out on board the probe with the results beamed back to earth.

Scientists, who had long assumed the surface of the planet would not be hospitable to life, have been forced into a to rethink.

"We found what appear to be the requirements, the nutrients, to support life -- past, present or future," said Samuel Kounaves of Tufts University near Boston, adding "The sort of soil you have there is the type of soil you'd probably have in your back yard."

The pH level of the sample was somewhere between 8 and 9, with 7 considered neutral. This would seem perfect for growing asparagus and other vegetables, such as green beans.

This does not mean seeds would germinate, due to almost everything else about the environment, including the lack of water. Even the water question, however, has been the subject of excitement.

In an earlier Phoenix experiment, soil was heated on board the lander to 1,800F, which resulted in the release of water vapour. This suggests that this part of the planet at least was in contact with water, although nobody can say when or how much water was involved.

But it was the vision of potted asparagus in Martian mud that was commanding the widest attention. "We're flabbergasted by this data," Dr Kounaves said. "There's nothing about it that would preclude life. In fact, it seems very friendly."

Other minerals found in the sample were magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride ions, making it similar to soil found in Antarctica. (© Indpendent News Service)

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