Wed, May 28, 2008 - Page 6 News List

Lander spends its first day on Mars preparing for dig


A photo provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona gives the first glimpse of the surface of the northern polar region of Mars, taken by NASA's Phoenix Mars lander on Sunday.


NASA's Phoenix Mars lander spent its first full day in the Martian arctic plains checking its instruments in preparation for an ambitious digging mission to study whether the site could have once been habitable.

The three-legged lander set down on Sunday in relatively flat terrain covered by fissures outlining polygon shapes. The geometric cracks are likely caused by the repeated freezing and thawing of buried ice.

Images beamed back late on Monday showed the elbow joint of Phoenix’s trench-digging robotic arm still partly covered by a protective sheath. The sheath was supposed to fully unwrap after landing.

Mission scientists downplayed the problem, saying they could still wiggle out the arm for digging.

“This is a minor inconvenience,” said Deborah Bass, deputy project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “We’re going to have to do a little bit of disentangling.”

It will be another week before Phoenix takes the first scoop of soil. After the initial taste test, the lander will spend the rest of the mission clawing through layers of soil to reach ice that is believed to be buried up to 30cm below the surface.

“We’ve only looked at one tiny little slit” of the landing site, said principal investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson.

While Phoenix continued to dazzle scientists with scenes from the Martian high northern latitudes, one image that it returned of the sun came out bleeded. Instead of a point in the sky, the sun appeared like a light saber sword. Bass said engineers were working to fix the problem.

Mission co-scientist Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis is pleased with Phoenix’s progress so far.

“Like a union worker, it went right to work,” he said.

Scientists were especially interested in how the polygon patterns in the ground formed at Phoenix’s landing site. The fractures look similar to those found on Earth’s polar regions. Arvidson said Phoenix appeared within reach of a shallow trough that could be a potential place to dig.

“I was just afraid that it’ll be so flat and homogenous and that we’d be digging in soil and we wouldn’t know the context” of how it formed, Arvidson said.

Launched last summer, Phoenix sailed through 679 million kilometers of space over a period of about 10 months.

The riskiest part of the journey came seven minutes before landing, when Phoenix, operating on autopilot, had to use the atmosphere’s friction, deploy its parachute and fire its dozen thrusters to slow to a 8kph thump.

The lander executed the maneuver almost flawlessly. The only snag came when it released the parachute seven seconds later than expected. The late timing caused the spacecraft to land slightly down range from its intended target.

Two hours after touchdown, Phoenix beamed back a flood of images revealing the first ever peek of the polar horizon. It also sent back images of its unfolded heat shield and another of its foot planted in soil next to pebble-sized rocks.

Smith said Phoenix slid a bit after landing.

The US$420 million mission is led by the University of Arizona and managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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