Unlocking the secret of past life on Mars

This editorial appeared in the Kansas City Star.

A mere 422 million miles from Earth, NASA's phenomenal planet-searcher, the Phoenix Lander, is busy giving scientists valuable information about life on Mars.

No, not life now, we don't think. But billions of years ago, there were large bodies of water, one of the key substances for life as we know it. Because of what Phoenix has been busy doing since it touched down May 25, scientists now can confirm the past existence of all this water.

The soil scooped up by the Lander's robotic arm contains minerals that show the Red Planet once had lakes and rivers. Scientists assessed the soil's contents through instruments on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Last month, Phoenix dug into the planet's surface and uncovered a white substance that was confirmed by scientists as ice.

John Mustard of Brown University in Providence, R. I., said Phoenix's findings are ”very strong“ for habitability at some point on Mars.

”It wasn't this hot, boiling cauldron,“ he says. ”It was a benign, water-rich environment for a long period of time.“

The minerals indicate that water —a great deal of water, in some cases — interacted with rocks 3.8 billion to 4.6 billion years ago.

Phoenix itself is a marvel of human engineering and design. After a 10-month journey through space and a picture-perfect touchdown, it has provided a lot of valuable information.

Even though not over, Phoenix's mission can be called a resounding success. It should pave the way for future exploration that could tell us even more about possible life on a planet that always has been a curiosity for the residents of its neighbor in the solar system.