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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The robotic arm of the Phoenix Lander put Martian soil through a narrow opening to a screen above the No. 5 oven on the lander’s Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer (TEGA). A few particles of the sample were delivered through the screen last Thursday, however, there is not enough to fill the oven and allow for analysis of the sample. The Phoenix team sent commands for TEGA to vibrate the screen again last Friday which allowed more soil to reach the oven, but still not enough to begin the analysis.

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“There appear to be clumps blocking the opening,” said Doug Ming, the Phoenix team’s science leader based at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “However, we have seen in the past that when this soil sits for a while, it disperses. We intend to fill an oven with this material, either by additional vibration of the same screen or by opening doors to one of the other TEGA cells.”

The conductivity measurements were completed last Wednesday. A fork-like probe inserted into the soil checks how well heat and electricity move through the soil from one prong to another.

I especially liked the picture above, provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University. It shows the deep reddish color of the Martian soil and how it clumps together, though the picture is a false-color image, it’s probably fairly accurate, perhaps a bit redder than its true state. You can see by looking at the American flag at upper left that there is a reddish tint to the picture.

Scientists working with the Mars Lander mission believe the robotic arm on the lander has found ice crystals in the Martian soil. Crumbly bits of bright material like shown in the picture below have been unearthed, (or is the term here unmars-ed?),  but later disappeared after exposure to the sunlight.

The thinking is that it must be ice, for if it was a substance like salt, it would still be present. As ice, frozen water that is, it would have vaporized shortly after being uncovered by the robotic arm.

More digging by the robotic arm and further testing should help confirm this hypothesis.

Mars Lander 06.19.08

My guess is that it is ice. There is still a ways to go to determine how much is present and if any pools of water lie below the surface. It’s an interesting development. More data should be available later.

An American flag and a mini-DVD are attached to the Phoenix Lander’s deck as show in this photo. The DVD is the round object to the left of the flag at the bottom of the picture.Lander flag and dvd

The DVD, supplied by the Planetary Society, contains a message to future Martian explorers.

Perhaps this is a tacit admission that life doesn’t exist on Mars? At least the sort of life that uses DVD players?

It’s possible future Martian explorers from Earth won’t be using this technology either. Anyway, it is an inexpensive addition to the Lander which helps generate interest in the program. The fact that more than a quarter million people requested their name be included on the DVD speaks to the interest factor.

The DVD contains a message to future explorers, science fiction stories, art inspired by Mars, and the names of more than 250,000 residents of Earth.

Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

The clarity and crisp resolution of the images being taken by the Phoenix Lander on Mars is astounding. The image below is a view of the ground underneath the Lander which points to evidence that descent thrusters dispersed overlying soil exposing what appears to bee ice. This is good, since one main objective of the robotic arm is to scoop soil samples containing ice for analysis

 Underneath Lander

This image taken by Robotic Arm Camera shows patches of smooth and level surfaces beneath the thrusters.


“We were expecting to find ice within two to six inches of the surface,” said Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson, principal investigator for Phoenix. “The thrusters have excavated two to six inches and, sure enough, we see something that looks like ice. It’s not impossible that it’s something else, but our leading interpretation is ice.”

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) took this picture of the Phoenix Lander gliding to the surface of Mars while it orbited overhead.

The Lander will soon be testing its robotic arm; first by unlatching its wrist and then flexing its elbow. This is critical to the success of the mission as the arm will be scooping soil samples of ice for analysis.Phoenix landing

 Image: NASA/ JPL/ Caltech/ Univ of Arizona

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This image shows the Phoenix craft parachute during its descent on May. It landed near the Heimdall crater at at distance of 12 miles in front of the crater. NASA is using both the MRO and another vehicle orbiting Mars, Odyssey, to communicate with the Phoenix Lander. Commands have been sent for the Lander to take pictures of the area around it and to begin to move its robotic arm.

During the next three months, the arm will dig in the soil near the lander and scoop samples of soil and ice to instruments on the lander deck. Following the commands this morning, its movements will begin with unlatching the wrist, then moving the arm upwards in a stair-step manner. These movements are schedule for Wednesday, May 28.

Overall, the Lander team is quite pleased with the landing of the craft and the position where it is situated on the surface of Mars.

The image below was taken today and relayed with other information to the MRO this evening, which transmitted the image and data to earth from its orbit around Mars.

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At fifty-three minutes past 6 pm, Central Standard Time, the Phoenix Lander confirmed to Mission Control that it landed in the northern polar region of Mars. The first successful landing without airbags to cushion the landing on the planet since Viking 2 landed in 1976. Thruster jets were used to control the landing. Over the next three months, its mission will be to use its robotic arm to dig for frozen water.

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The photo at left is a picture of one of the feet of the lander and the photo below is of the surrounding Martian landscape. Credit for the photo’s: NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ Univ. of Arizona.

During its 422-million-mile flight from Earth to Mars, which launched on August 4, 2007, Phoenix relied on electricity from solar panels during the spacecraft’s trip, known as the cruise stage. The cruise stage was jettisoned seven minutes before the lander, encased in a protective shell to protect against heat from entry into the thin Martian atmosphere, entered the Martian atmosphere proceeding toward the surface of the planet. Batteries provided electricity until the lander’s own pair of solar arrays spread open.

Another critical deployment will be the 7.7-foot-long robotic arm on Phoenix, which will not be attempted for at least two days. Scientists will use the robotic arm during the weeks ahead to obtain samples of soil and ice and put them into laboratory instruments on the lander deck.

Pulled by Mars’ gravity, Phoenix was speeding along at 12,700 mph before it entered the atmosphere, which slowed the craft so it could pop out a parachute and fire thruster rockets to glide softly to the ground.

The journey took 10 months and spanned a distance of 423 million miles. NASA attempted a landing on Mars’ south pole in 1999, but a problem developed during the final minutes of descent and ended the mission.

NASA canceled its next Mars lander but successfully deployed Spirit and Opportunity to the planet’s equatorial region to search for signs of past surface water.Mars landing area

Phoenix was created from spare parts out of the failed Polar Lander mission and a mothballed probe. Unlike the rovers, Phoenix did not bounce to the planet’s surface in airbags, which are not suitable for larger spacecraft.

Instead, like the 1970s-era Viking probes and the failed Polar Lander mission, Phoenix used a jet pack to lower itself to the ground and fold-out legs to land on.