Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Latest News From the Red Planet

Clumpy soil on Mars has further hampered the Phoenix lander's attempts to obtain samples for analysis by the spacecraft's test instruments, mission experts said.

"Virtually none of the material made it down into the oven" after the probe dug up new soil clumps from the Martian permafrost with its robotic arm, William Boynton, an investigator for Phoenix's thermal and evolved gas analyzer (TEGA), said during a press teleconference Monday
It was a further setback for Phoenix, whose TEGA analyzer at the weekend was not able to obtain smaller, testable bits from the Martian landscape which researchers hope will provide clues to whether the planet was once habitable for microbial life.
Between 20 and 30 milligrams of soil is necessary for analysis, but Boynton said less than one milligram of matter passed through the screen into one of the probe's test facilities.
The screen is designed to allow through it particles measuring one millimeter (0.04 inch) or less. Inside the port there is an infrared beam which determines if particles enter the machine.
Once it gets a sample, the TEGA instrument spends several days analysing its content, first testing for the level of water content, and then heating it gradually to 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,832 Fahrenheit) to better assess the mineral composition.
Phoenix, which landed on the stark terrain of Mars' north pole region on May 25, collected the first sample on Thursday.
The team aims to try the procedure anew in the coming days. Should that fail, mission scientist Doug Ming said, they will attempt a "sprinkle test" in an attempt to jar smaller soil pieces free.
"We hope to deliver a sample in about two sols," or Martian days, Ming said.
Boynton, who is a scientist at the University of Arizona which is coordinating significant elements of the mission, said the team was not urgently pressed for time.
"It will be at least a week or two (of failure) before we start to get terribly concerned," he said.
Phoenix has a total of eight "ovens" that can be used to test separate samples from the Martian surface.
If need be the team can also employ an alternate delivery mechanism which would grind up the sample. "So we are still pretty optimistic that one of these techniques will work for us," Boynton said.

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