Doing the dirty shake on Mars

The digging drama on Mars continues.

Phoenix did dig up a nice, big clump of Martian soil, and dumped it into the receptacle where it should be analysed. However, it seems that Martian dirt is far clumpier than the NASA boffins had guessed, and none of it slipped through the intended gaps in the receptacle screen to the analyser below. Phoenix shook the screen for 20 minutes yesterday but only a couple of specks of dirt fell inside.

More shaking is planned, and then it’s on to Plan B:

The arm delivered the first sample to TEGA on Friday by turning the scoop over to release its contents. The revised delivery method, which Phoenix is testing for the first time today, will hold the scoop at an angle above the delivery target and sprinkle out a small amount of the sample by vibrating the scoop.

Mars update: communication breakdown and time for more digging

The Phoenix Mars explorer has been busy.

It’s exercised its scoop twice, picking up bits of dirt and then dumping them out. The oven that will “bake” the dirt and analyse the gases that evolve from it has been tested too, and is in working order. That means Phoenix is ready to scoop some dirt up for proper analysis.

It’s also taking photos that are being rendered into colour. The photo it took of the ground where it did the second test scoop show a patch of white stuff underneath the topsoil, much like was seen in the landing site underneath the Phoenix itself. Until they analyse some of it NASA won’t know for sure if that white stuff is ice or mineral salts or something else.

Click image to enlarge. Courtesy of NASA JPL.

There’s also some drama. The Mars Odyssey – which has been in orbit around Mars for some time, and relays info between Phoenix and Earth – has gone into “safe mode”. It’s programmed to do this when something goes wrong: it stops what it’s doing, shuts off non-essential systems and waits for instructions from Earth. NASA’s trying to figure out what triggered safe mode. In the meantime they’re using a second orbiter, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), to communicate with Phoenix (although that’s not exactly smooth sailing, either: they’d previously stopped using MRO a few days ago when one of its radios failed temporarily, though it’s been working since then).

Ice on Mars?

The Phoenix lander on Mars has taken a photo of what might be ice! The main purpose of the mission is to find ice (that’s why they landed near the pole) and test it to see if it’s ever been liquid water that could have supported life.

Of course, that bright spot might also just be rock, but they’ll soon be able to test and find out. Whatever it is, it’s right under Phoenix, and seems to have been exposed when the explorer’s landing blew away topsoil. Handy!

“Once landed with solar panels open, I measure 7.2 ft. tall and 18 ft. wide”

Phoenix is a robotic Mars lander spacecraft. It was developed by a partnership of NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, several European countries, and the aerospace industry. Phoenix launched last year and is now getting very close to Mars, where it will try to chart the history of water on the planet and identify environments where microbial bits of life could exist.

It’s scheduled to land on Mars a week from today. That alone would be exciting enough. But I’ve been whipped into a frenzy by the fact that in the last few weeks scientists on the programme have been Twittering as if they were the Phoenix robot. About two hours ago Phoenix fired its engines for three seconds to make a landing trajectory adjustment. Now that is cool.

NASA’s Phoenix Mars lander illuminates Launch Pad 17A as it lifts off aboard a Delta II 7925 rocket at 5:26 a.m. EDT 04-Aug-2007 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Phoenix will land in icy soils near the north polar, permanent ice cap of Mars and explore the history of the water in these soils and any associated rocks, while monitoring polar climate. Landing on Mars is planned in May 2008 on arctic ground where a mission currently in orbit, Mars Odyssey, has detected high concentrations of ice just beneath the top layer of soil. Photo credit: NASA/Tony Gray and Robert Murray