LOS ANGELES - NASA scientists said on Thursday they had definitive proof that water exists on Mars after tests on ice found on the planet in June by the Phoenix Mars Lander.
Until now, the evidence for ice has been circumstantial. That was based on photos Phoenix took of a hard splotchy area near its landing site and changes it saw in a trench.
The robot heated up ice in one of its instruments earlier this week. Scientists say the chemical test confirms the presence of ice near the Martian north pole.
We have water," said William Boynton, lead scientist for the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer instrument on Phoenix.
"We've seen evidence for this water ice before in observations by the Mars Odyssey orbiter and in disappearing chunks observed by Phoenix last month, but this is the first time Martian water has been touched and tasted," he said.
NASA on Thursday also extended the mission of the Phoenix Mars Lander by five weeks, saying its work was moving beyond the search for water to exploring whether the red planet was ever capable of sustaining life.
The extension will add about $2 million to the $420 million cost of landing Phoenix for what was a scheduled three-month mission, said Michael Meyer, chief scientist for NASA's Mars exploration program.
Phoenix is the latest NASA bid to discover whether water — a crucial ingredient for life — ever flowed on Mars and whether life, even in the form of mere microbes, exists or ever existed there.
Phoenix touched down in May on an ice sheet and samples of the ice were seen melting away in photographs taken by the lander's instruments in June.
Boynton said that water was positively identified after the lander's robotic arm delivered a soil sample on Wednesday to an instrument that identifies vapors produced by heating.
Mission scientists said the extension would give time for more analysis of Martian samples. They plan to dig two additional trenches — dubbed "cupboard" and "neverland" — using the robotic arm on the Phoenix craft.
"We hope to be able to answer the question of whether this was a habitable zone on Mars. It will be for future missions to find if anyone is home on this environment," Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith told the news conference.
Mission scientists said in June that Martian soil was more alkaline than expected and had traces of magnesium, sodium, potassium and other elements. They described the findings as a "huge step forward."
Meyer said the scientific proof of the existence of water meant that Phoenix could "move from looking for water to seeing whether there were habitats for life.
"We are moving towards understanding whether there were or could be places on Mars that are habitable," Meyer said.
© 2008 MSNBC Interactive
History shows again and again how nature points up the folly of man