Spiky Probe on NASA Mars Lander Raises Vapor Quandary

A fork-like conductivity probe has sensed humidity rising and falling beside NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander, but when stuck into the ground, its measurements so far indicate soil that is thoroughly and perplexingly dry. “If you have water vapor in the air, every surface exposed to that air will have water molecules adhere to it that are somewhat mobile, even at temperatures well below freezing,” said Aaron Zent of NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., lead scientist for Phoenix’s thermal and electroconductivity probe.
In below-freezing permafrost terrains on Earth, that thin layer of unfrozen water molecules on soil particles can grow thick enough to support microbial life. One goal for building the conductivity probe and sending it to Mars has been to see whether the permafrost terrain of the Martian arctic has detectable thin films of unfrozen water on soil particles. By gauging how electricity moves through the soil from one prong to another, the probe can detect films of water barely more than one molecule thick.