Saturday, May 31, 2008

Mars Mission: We've Got Ice!

Posted By on Sat, May 31, 2008 at 4:10 PM

234067main_under-full1.jpgDATELINE MARS:

• The science team, led by Peter Smith of the UA Lunar and Planetary Lab, has spent the last couple of days completing the 360-degree mosaic photo of the landscape around the spacecraft, which has been transmitting data since it landed last Sunday, May 25. NASA has a created an animated tour.

Now the scientists are doing a detailed map and analysis of the area, which includes rock features like Sleepy Hollow, Humpty Dumpty and King’s Men. “For naming rocks, you might think that scientist would go with A1 and A2 and B3 or something, but that is so dull,” says Smith, who adds that the team will have to stick with folk tales that were established before copyright laws kicked in.

The science team is setting aside one area as a “nature preserve” that they will leave untouched and designating another area more of a “Superfund site” where they’ll do their initial gathering of soil samples with the robotic arm in the next week.

• The robot arm is moving and has snapped photos of what appears to be ice underneath the lander. Smith explains that icy patch was uncovered when the soil was stirred up by the landing thrusters of the Phoenix and says the discovery is a good sign for the mission because it suggests the ice is close to the surface. The science team hopes to use the robot arm to deliver samples of the ice to onboard labs that can analyze the Martian water.

“If we hadn’t been able to find ice near our landing site, we would have missed the opportunity to study climate history and the preservation of organic material,” says Smith. “This is really a gleeful day for me. Right away, within the first week, we know just how deep this ice is.”

The Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer’s mass spectrometer is on the fritz. Smith says the Phoenix team is hard at work at resolving the problem: “Nobody thinks it’s more than a little hiccup.”

More details on the mission at the UA's Phoenix Web site and NASA’s Web site.

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