Mars Phoenix Lander mission white lies .
Unless you've been hiding under a rock, you know that The Mars Phoenix Lander is the latest robotic spacecraft to make a planetary exploration mission on Mars. What I find interesting about the mission is that the scientists conducting the show are claiming that their instruments are only looking for environments suitable for microbial life on Mars, not for evidence of life on Mars. Essentially, their plug is that by researching the history of water on Mars, they can assess whether the odds are better or worse for life having arisen there.
Their plug is a white lie. Believe me, NASA scientists are doing both tasks simultaneously. (More on that in a moment.) The reason they must tell such a lie is that by so doing NASA can squeeze an extra mission or two of funding from congress for future landers. And, of course, by claiming that the Phoenix Lander was never meant to look for life, when none happens to be found, this doesn't get to count as a counter-argument for not sending any more landers there. Overall, then, this white lie is convenient political cover for keeping Mars exploration going, and convenient scientific cover for obscuring counter-evidence for a thesis that the vast majority of NASA scientists desperately hope is true -- that there was, is, or in the future could be, microbial life on Mars.
Let me now explain why the Phoenix lander is indeed well equipped to find microbial life on Mars. First, and I think sufficient in itself to establish my claim, the lander contains very powerful optical microscopes on board. For example, just yesterday, the lander took pictures of dust particles smaller than can be see by the human eye. As compared to other instruments on other landers, the resolution of the most recent images are "10 times that of previous pictures of the surface taken by NASA's Mars rovers". These microscopes can also return images with color differentiation, which adds a host of powerful analysis of information about the various objects of investigation. Furthermore, the imaged particle recovered from the lander's descent was a mere "three millimeter diameter silicone target"
Second, the lander has not just optical microscopes, but also an atomic force microscope. From the mission website itself:
The optical microscope will have a resolution of 4 microns per pixel, allowing detection of particles ranging from about 10 micrometers up to the size of the field of view (about 1 millimeter by 2 millimeters). Red, green, blue, and ultraviolet LEDs will illuminate samples in differing color combinations to enhance the soil and water-ice structure and texture at these scales. The atomic force microscope will provide sample images down to 10 nanometers - the smallest scale ever examined on Mars. Using its sensors, the AFM creates a very small-scale "topographic" map showing the detailed structure of soil and ice grains.This kind of imaging can give conclusive evidence for the existence of microbial life. Here are some examples of microscopic fossils on Earth, fossils of just the type that could be resolved by the Phoenix Lander's equipment:
Note well that this is a 20 micron image, but the microscopes on The Phoenix Lander are rated for images five times smaller than this! If we move up to "larger" microscopic fossils, then the whole issue is ludicrously obvious. For example, the picture below is of some of the more commonly found fossil types which are in the 100s of micron size. Even a High School freshman could identify these as once-living creatures:
In conclusion, do not believe for a moment that The Phoenix Lander could not determine whether there is life on Mars. If any microscopic fossils are within reach of that arm, and if any of those happened to be resolved by the lander, the evidence for that life will be unambiguous.
 Catherine Elsworth and Roger Highfield "Nasa's Phoenix Mars lander takes most detailed pictures ever of alien dust" Telegraph (Accessed June 6, 2008)
 "Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA) built by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory" Phoenix Mars Mission Site (Accessed June 6, 2008)
 "Index Fossils" Belvedere (Accessed June 6, 2008)
 "Introductory Micropalenontology" Site of Dr. Ramadan Abu-Zied, Geology Dept., Mansoura University (Accessed June 6, 2008)