Kounaves focuses on unraveling fundamental questions in planetary science by applying "extreme analytical chemistry" to the harshest environments imaginable: Places like Death Valley, Antarctica – and Mars.
Phoenix is designed to study the history of water and search for complex organic molecules in the ice-rich soil of the Martian arctic. Kounaves is spearheading the chemical interpretation of the inorganic and electrochemical analyses of the soil-ice constituents, their relationship to past and present Martian geochemistry, and the potential of the Martian environment to support microbial life.
"We will also try to decipher the climatic history of via the chemical record left in the soil," he said last August. That history, he says, may hold vital clues and lessons for climate change on Earth.
Phoenix incorporates some of the most sophisticated advanced technology ever sent to Mars, according to NASA. A robotic arm digs through the soil to the water-ice layer underneath, and deliver soil and ice samples to the mission's experiments. On the Lander deck, miniature ovens and a mass spectrometer chemically analyze trace matter, the wet chemistry laboratory (WCL) characterizes the soil and ice chemistry, imaging systems will provide an unprecedented view of Mars, and a meteorological station will study the atmosphere and clouds.
Kounaves' team is focused on the WCL, which includes four teacup-size beakers that will receive soil-ice samples. His group was responsible for delivering, as flight ready hardware, the tiny crucibles that hold the chemical reagents that will be mixed with soil-ice samples, and a sensor array originally developed at Tufts for analysis of metal ions in water. The concentrations and forms of inorganic and organic molecules are among the signatures of life that the Phoenix team is looking for.
The biggest surprise so far" "That, for all the differences, is so earth-like. Some of us think that if there is life on Mars, it's probably very, very – it could be very deep. I mean we found life on Earth only recently very deep. And so we've been living here for a long time, and 20 years ago we didn't believe there was life on Earth subterranean, and now it's been pretty well established by several groups that there are bacteria happily thriving underneath us thousands of feet below. These organisms basically eat the sulfur in the rock and thrive. Those creatures would be happy on Mars in the subterranean area."
"Personally my belief is that life is an emergent property in the universe, and that there's probably a lot of places where life has emerged, and in some places it has evolved maybe very little, and in other places it has evolved to areas – maybe stages where, similar to ours."
Posted by Casey Kazan.
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