'Clumpy' Dirt Muddies Mars Research

A mini-drama unfolded millions of miles away this week near the North Pole of Mars when NASA's robotic lander Phoenix had trouble with a shovel-full of dirt. NPR's science correspondent David Kestenbaum wonders if there is life among the dirt on Mars.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

This week, a mini drama unfolded millions of miles away, near the North Pole of Mars. That's where NASA's Phoenix lander has been digging a trench. Sounds simple, right? Well, maybe not. And that's why it's Science out of the Box.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: See, the robotic arm on the lander scooped up dirt with no problem, but the dirt didn't cooperate. When the lander tried to load it into an oven for analysis, it got stuck.

And that got NPR's science correspondent David Kestenbaum wondering.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: Are we alone in the universe? Was there life on Mars? Honestly, these are some of the most profound questions you can ask. On the other hand, there is the daily reality of the NASA Phoenix press conferences.

Ms. JANE PLATT (Media Relations Officer, NASA): Thank you very much. Hello, everybody. Thanks for joining us for another Phoenix Mars lander media telecom for Wednesday, June 11th. I'm Jane Platt with...

KESTENBAUM: In the story of the quest for life, this is just one page of what could be a very, very long book that could probably do with some editing. So reporters took note when there seems like a little dramatic tension this week.

Dr. WILLIAM BOYNTON (University of Arizona): As many of you are aware, we've been having some problem dealing with this very crusty material. And it's been...

KESTENBAUM: The dirt was proving surprisingly clumpy. And scientists like Bill Boynton here on Earth were having trouble getting their robotic craft, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars, to put a few grains of dirt into an oven for analysis. But this was actually less dramatic than it seemed. During the week, we reporters asked, are you worried? Answer: not yet. Could you just break up the soil with the shovel? Yes, they could try that. Is this dirt unlike anything on Earth? Answer: probably not.

In a couple of days it was all over; with additional shaking enough grains of dirt slid into the analyzer.

Dr. BOYNTON: The group just went up into cheers and I got a standing ovation. And we're playing some shake, shake, shake music and we just...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BOYNTON: ...we just had a good time for a minute or two.

KESTENBAUM: It's sometimes said that reality is stranger than fiction, that the true story is better than the one you would make up. You have to wonder if that's true here. It's hard to even come up with a headline.

Mr. JOHN SCALZI (Science Fiction Writer): Dirt gate, it's too clumpy.

KESTENBAUM: This is John Scalzi, a science fiction writer. His blog is titled Whatever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCALZI: Here's a fundamental fact about science, which is a fundamental fact about pretty much anything, which is 98 percent of science is really boring stuff.

KESTENBAUM: Part of the problem is that the public has been hearing about the search for life for years. Every tiny step, every rock, and the human mind wants more.

Mr. SCALZI: It's like, I want a happy ending. I want the life on Mars, or not, just one way or the other. And it's just not that simple.

KESTENBAUM: Just give it to me.

Mr. SCALZI: Just give it to me. Is there life on Mars? Let me know, so then I can get back to my toast.

KESTENBAUM: So while we are all patiently waiting for that answer, Scalzi has this improvement to Dirtgate; I asked him how the story might play out in fiction.

Mr. SCALZI: You know what would be really fun for me would be like they sift it, and the reason that it's all clumped up is because we found a fossil.

KESTENBAUM: A knucklebone of something. Where is the rest of the skeleton? Maybe just out of reach because this lander does not have wheels.

Scalzi says he has been following the daily dramas from Mars, and he says if you're feeling jaded, there is the stuff of legend in there. He says take a look at a ghostly photo taken from space that shows the Phoenix lander arriving at Mars last month. You can actually see the parachutes streaming out behind. He thinks it's absolutely incredible.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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