TUCSON, Ariz. — Laboratory tests aboard NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander have identified water in a soil sample. The lander’s robotic arm delivered the sample Wednesday to an instrument that identifies vapors produced by the heating of samples.
With enticing results so far and the spacecraft in good shape, NASA also announced operational funding for the mission will extend through Sept. 30. The original prime mission of three months ends in late August. The mission extension adds five weeks to the 90 days of the prime mission.
The soil sample came from a trench approximately 2 inches deep. When the robotic arm first reached that depth, it hit a hard layer of frozen soil. Two attempts to deliver samples of icy soil on days when fresh material was exposed were foiled when the samples became stuck inside the scoop. Most of the material in Wednesday’s sample had been exposed to the air for two days, letting some of the water in the sample vaporize away and making the soil easier to handle.
Since landing on May 25, Phoenix has been studying soil with a chemistry lab, TEGA, a microscope, a conductivity probe and cameras. Besides confirming the 2002 finding from orbit of water ice near the surface and deciphering the newly observed stickiness, the science team is trying to determine whether the water ice ever thaws enough to be available for biology and if carbon-containing chemicals and other raw materials for life are present.
A full-circle, color panorama of Phoenix’s surroundings also has been completed by the spacecraft.
This partial view of a full-circle panorama shows NASA’s Mars Phoenix
Lander and the polygonal patterning of the ground at the landing area.
The image is in approximately true color. Image credit:
NASA/JPL-Caltech/University Arizona/Texas A&M University
“The details and patterns we see in the ground show an ice-dominated terrain as far as the eye can see,” said Mark Lemmon of Texas A&M University, lead scientist for Phoenix’s Surface Stereo Imager camera. “They help us plan measurements we’re making within reach of the robotic arm and interpret those measurements on a wider scale.”
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