Forgetting for a moment the extreme cold and harsh environment on Mars, the pictures that the Phoenix lander is transmitting back to Earth are marvelous in their ordinariness. The pictures could be soil at many if not most any place on Earth. They’re awesome due to their clarity and resolution, making one feel like they could walk out their back door and pick up a handful of Martian dirt. No big whoop at all.

Analysis has started on a sample of soil delivered to NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander’s wet chemistry experiment from the deepest trench dug thus far. Additionally, Phoenix has also been observing movement of clouds overhead.

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Its robotic arm recently sprinkled a small fraction of the estimated 50 cubic centimeters of soil that had been scooped up from the informally named “Stone Soup” trench on Saturday, the 95th day of the mission. The Stone Soup trench, in the left portion of the lander’s active workspace, is approximately 18 centimeters (7 inches) deep.

The surface of the arctic plain where Phoenix landed on May 25 bears a pattern of small polygon-shaped hummocks, similar to some permafrost terrain on Earth. This is why scientists thought this area ideal to point the lander to. They are particularly interested in the new sample because it is from a trench on the border between two of the polygons, where different material may collect than what has been analyzed from near the center of a polygon. From inside Phoenix’s scoop, the sample material from the bottom of the trench displayed clumping characteristics somewhat different from other cloddy soil samples that have been collected and examined. There are clumps and then there are clumps.

Some clues to the composition of the sample has been derived from images taken. While spectral observations have not produced any sign of water-ice, bigger clumps of soil have shown a texture consistent with elevated concentration of salts in the soil from deep in the trench. The lander’s wet chemistry laboratory can identify soluble salts in the soil.

The science team has also been studying a series of still pictures of the nearby Martian sky showing dramatic water ice clouds moving over the landing site during a 10-minute period on Sol 94 (Aug. 29).

“The images were taken as part of a campaign to see clouds and track wind. These are clearly ice clouds,” said Mark Lemmon, the lead scientist for the lander’s surface stereo imager, from Texas A&M University.

Image: NASA

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