Prof Plays Vital Role in Mars Water Breakthrough

Instrument Developed by John Hoffman Analyzed Samples Aboard NASA Lander

Aug. 7, 2008

NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander has recently confirmed what space scientists have suspected for a long time: There is water on Mars.

John Hoffman

UT Dallas Physics Professor John Hoffman, a member of the William B. Hanson Center for Space Sciences, is at the center of the discovery.

Hoffman’s mass spectrometer is the system that analyzed gases from soil samples, the step needed to prove the existence of water. 

The Lander’s robotic arm has been digging in a number of places within reach of the stationary lander.  The sites of interest have been given Disney character names, like “Mama Bear, Baby Bear, Goldilocks, and Snow White trench.”

To make the analysis, soil samples from a trench 2 inches deep were heated in furnaces aboard the Phoenix Mars Lander. A number of measurements showed the presence of water in the sample as it was heated from -10 C up past the melting point of ice (0 degrees C). 

The measurements that determined the presence of water included the:

  • Energy input to the oven that was required to melt the ice.
  • Increase of gas pressure in the oven as the ice turned into water vapor.
  • Readings from Hoffman’s spectrometer.

“I am very pleased that we were able to identify the ice as actually being frozen water,” Hoffman said.  “I’m also looking forward to other discoveries that we might make in the surface materials of Mars.”

The Phoenix Lander’s reliability and longevity, not to mention its recent discovery of water, prompted NASA to extend the Lander’s mission by five weeks.  The original mission, slated for 90 days, was set to end in late August.

Media Contacts: Brandon V. Webb, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected]
or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected]

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Water on Mars

This image taken by NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander shows current trenches (inside the blue rectangles) and the areas identified for future digging (orange rectangles). (Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University)

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January 18, 2021