Friday, June 06, 2008

Martian Daily News from Mars

NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander successfully scooped up a sample of Martian soil with its robotic arm, mission scientists said on Friday.
This is really an important occasion for us, to be poised to make a measurement for the first time of the Martian arctic soil," said Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona.
The $420 million mission aims to dig down through the soil to the layers of water ice thought to lie underneath the surface, and to analyze soil samples to determine their composition and see if the ice might once have been liquid water, potentially creating a habitable zone for microbial life at some point in the past.
Phoenix retrieved its sample Thursday from a site dubbed Baby Bear, which lies just to the right of the trench the lander dug out in its practice digs. The practice digging locale is called Dodo

Mission controllers will send instructions to the lander to dump the sample into one of the TEGA ovens tonight. The TEGA ovens, which are about an inch long and the diameter of a pencil lead, will heat up the soil samples and use a mass spectrometer to detect the gases that come off the samples, which will shed light on some of the materials in the soil, specifically those formed by the process of liquid water.
"The TEGA system is particularly sensitive to water in its oven ... water is the first thing that's cooked out," Smith said.
Mission scientists must be careful when delivering the sample not to overload the instrument and contaminate other ovens. Once the sample is delivered on Friday, Phoenix will image TEGA to make sure the sample has been delivered and that the oven door is shut. The instrument is will then begin its four-day analysis (which may not occur in four consecutive days); the team will report each day's results as they become available. Any water present in the sample should be the first thing to vaporize from the soil, Smith said.
The sample also contains some of the white material seen in the scoop after Phoenix's first practice "dig and dump," which scientists think could be ice or a type of salt mineral.
Of course, they can't be sure that any of the white material will make it through the oven's entry screen. "We're hoping that some of this goes in and that we get a hint of what it is," Smith said.
Some science team members think that the whitish material can't be ice because it has been too easy to scrape up — the ice layers under the soil will likely be difficult to scrap because ice is so hard at the brutally frigid temperatures on Mars (which have so far reached a high of only -22 degrees Fahrenheit (-30 Celsius)

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