Phoenix Finds Wonderland and Snow White, But Where are Alice and the 7 Dwarves?

27 June 2008

NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander scraped to icy soil in the “Wonderland” area on Thursday, June 26, confirming that surface soil, subsurface soil and icy soil can be sampled at a single trench.

Phoenix scientists are now assured they have a complete soil-layer profile in Wonderland’s “Snow White” extended trench.

By rasping to icy soil, the robotic arm on Phoenix proved it could flatten the layer where soil meets ice, exposing the icy flat surface below the soil. Scientists can now proceed with plans to scoop and scrape samples into Phoenix’s various analytical instruments. Scientists will test samples to determine if some ice in the soil may have been liquid in the past during warmer climate cycles.

It’s another encouraging step to meeting Phoenix mission goals, which are to study the history of Martian water in all its phases and determine if the Martian arctic soil could support life.

Phoenix Update: Scientists OD on Chemical Data

26 June 2008

NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander performed its first wet chemistry experiment on Martian soil flawlessly yesterday, returning a wealth of data that for Phoenix scientists was like winning the lottery.

“We are awash in chemistry data,” said Michael Hecht of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, lead scientist for the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer, or MECA, instrument on Phoenix. “We’re trying to understand what is the chemistry of wet soil on Mars, what’s dissolved in it, how acidic or alkaline it is. With the results we received from Phoenix yesterday, we could begin to tell what aspects of the soil might support life.”

“This is the first wet-chemical analysis ever done on Mars or any planet, other than Earth,” said Phoenix co-investigator Sam Kounaves of Tufts University, science lead for the wet chemistry investigation.

About 80 percent of Phoenix’s first, two-day wet chemistry experiment is now complete. Phoenix has three more wet-chemistry cells for use later in the mission.


Mars Update: Phoenix Joins Alice in “Wonderland”


NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander began digging in an area called “Wonderland” early Tuesday, taking its first scoop of soil from a polygonal surface feature within the “national park” region that mission scientists have been preserving for science.

The lander’s Robotic Arm created the new test trench called “Snow White” on June 17, the 22nd Martian day, or sol, after the Phoenix spacecraft landed on May 25. Newly planned science activities will resume no earlier than Sol 24 as engineers look into how the spacecraft is handling larger than expected amounts of data.

During Tuesday’s dig, the arm didn’t reach the hard white material, possibly ice, that Phoenix exposed previously in the first trench it dug into the Martian soil.


Mars Update: Phoenix Sprinkles Soil for Microscopic Analysis


NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander sprinkled a spoonful of Martian soil Wednesday onto the sample wheel of the spacecraft’s robotic microscope station, images received early Thursday confirmed.

“It looks like a light dusting and that’s just what we wanted. The Robotic Arm team did a great job,” said Michael Hecht of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. He is the lead scientist for the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA) instrument on Phoenix.

The delivery of scooped-up soil for inspection by the lander’s Optical Microscope, a component of MECA, marks the second success in consecutive days for getting samples delivered to laboratory instruments on Phoenix’s deck. Some soil from an earlier scoopful reached a tiny oven in another instrument on Tuesday, as confirmed in data received early Wednesday. That instrument is the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer, or TEGA. Commands being sent to Phoenix today include instructions to close TEGA oven number 4 and begin analyzing the sample inside, a process that will take several days.


Mars Update: Phoenix Has Oven Full of Soil

NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander’s Surface Stereo Imager took this image on Sol 14 (June 8, 2008), the 14th Martian day after landing. It shows two trenches dug by Phoenix’s Robotic Arm. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University


NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander has filled its first oven with Martian soil.

“We have an oven full,” Phoenix co-investigator Bill Boynton of the University of Arizona, Tucson, said today. “It took 10 seconds to fill the oven. The ground moved.”

Boynton leads the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer instrument, or TEGA, for Phoenix. The instrument has eight separate tiny ovens to bake and sniff the soil to assess its volatile ingredients, such as water.

The lander’s Robotic Arm delivered a partial scoopful of clumpy soil from a trench informally called “Baby Bear” to the number 4 oven on TEGA last Friday, June 6, which was 12 days after landing.


Mars: Yep, it’s Dusty, All Right!

This image shows a 3 millimeter (0.12 inch) diameter silicone target after it has been exposed to dust kicked up by the landing. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona


TUCSON, Ariz. — A microscope on NASA’s Mars Phoenix Lander has taken images of dust and sand particles with the greatest resolution ever returned from another planet.

The mission’s Optical Microscope observed particles that had fallen onto an exposed surface, revealing grains as small as one-tenth the diameter of a human hair.

“We have images showing the diversity of mineralogy on Mars at a scale that is unprecedented in planetary exploration,” said Michael Hecht of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena. He is the lead scientist for Phoenix’s Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA) instrument suite.

Meanwhile, Phoenix received commands Thursday to collect its first soil sample to be delivered to a laboratory instrument on the lander deck. Commands for that same activity sent on Wednesday did not reach Phoenix because the orbiter intended for relaying the transmission, NASA’s Mars Odyssey, had put itself into a safe standby mode shortly before the commands would have reached Odyssey.


Phoenix Scoops Up First Soil Sample

Martian Soil


One week after landing on far-northern Mars, NASA Phoenix spacecraft lifted its first scoop of Martian soil as a test of the lander’s Robotic Arm.

The practice scoop was emptied onto a designated dump area on the ground after the Robotic Arm Camera photographed the soil inside the scoop. The Phoenix team plans to have the arm deliver its next scoopful, later this week, to an instrument that heats and sniffs the sample to identify ingredients.

A glint of bright material appears in the scooped up soil and in the hole from which it came. “That bright material might be ice or salt. We’re eager to do testing of the next three surface samples collected nearby to learn more about it,” said Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis, Phoenix co-investigator for the Robotic Arm.

The camera on the arm examined the lander’s first scoop of Martian soil. “The camera has its own red, green and blue lights, and we combine separate images taken with different illumination to create color images,” said the University of Arizona’s Pat Woida, senior engineer on the Phoenix team.

Phoenix Arm Creates “Footprint” on Mars (or So NASA Would Have Us Believe)

NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander left behind a Yeti-like “footprint” on Mars in its first successful attempt to touch the planet’s frozen surface on Saturday. The mark so reminded NASA officials of the mythical snow beast that they actually named the spot…..wait for it….Yeti. Features and locations around the Phoenix lander are being named for fairy tale and mythological characters.

“This first touch allows us to utilize the Robotic Arm accurately. We are in a good situation for the upcoming sample acquisition and transfer,” said David Spencer, Phoenix’s surface mission manager from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

One hopes the image doesn’t become fodder for conspiracy theorists who believe that NASA is covering up evidence of life on Mars, or is faking the mission in an abandoned quarry in the Northwest where Bigfoot roams. (Remember, you heard that here first….)

Phoenix Finds Ice Near Martian North Pole; Discovery Deemed “Absolutely Astounding”

A view under the Mars Phoenix Rover showing what scientists believe is a patch of ice.
A photo shows the underside of the Phoenix lander and what appears to be exposed surface ice.


A view of the ground underneath NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander adds to evidence that descent thrusters dispersed overlying soil and exposed a harder substrate that may be ice.

The image received Friday night from the spacecraft’s Robotic Arm Camera shows patches of smooth and level surfaces beneath the thrusters.

“This suggests we have an ice table under a thin layer of loose soil,” said the lead scientist for the Robotic Arm Camera, Horst Uwe Keller of Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany.

“We were expecting to find ice within two to six inches of the surface,” said Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson, principal investigator for Phoenix. “The thrusters have excavated two to six inches and, sure enough, we see something that looks like ice. It’s not impossible that it’s something else, but our leading interpretation is ice.”


Canadian Scientists Celebrate Phoenix Landing, Mourn Loss of Colleague

There was great joy north of the border among scientists who have contributed to the successful Mars Phoenix mission. Yet, the celebration was mixed with sadness over the loss of a colleague who never got to see it.

U of A device to measure wind on Mars successfully lands – University of Alberta Press Release
“University of Alberta scientist Carlos Lange is thrilled that an instrument he invented, a wind sensor called the Telltale, has successfully landed on Mars. This is the first time Canadians have been involved with an interplanetary mission and Lange, a mechanical engineering professor, spent four years in preparation for this mission.”

Canadian Technology on MarsToronto Star
“A milestone for Canadian planetary science passed Wednesday when a highly sophisticated weather device aboard the NASA Phoenix lander successfully transmitted its first messages from Mars.”

Canadians feel loss of Mars mission scientistToronto Star
“Clinking glasses as they celebrated the triumphant touchdown on Mars of the Phoenix lander Sunday evening, York University professor Jim Whiteway and his team missed the one person who should have been there.

“Diane Michelangeli was the lead researcher behind the innovative Canadian-built meteorological station on the Phoenix, before she died of cancer last year – less than a month after the station was launched. Team members still feel the loss.”

Phoenix’s Robotic Arm Deploys; Mars Express Captures Sound of Lander’s Descent

Controllers in Pasadena began deployment of the Mars Phoenix’s 8-foot robotic arm on Thursday, a day late because of a communications glitch with a relay satellite. The arm will dig in the Martian permafrost, scooping up soil for analysis by instruments on the lander. NASA officials report that arm deployment went well and that the spacecraft is in great shape.

ESA’s Mars Express caught the sounds of the spacecraft’s descent into the atmosphere on Sunday. Listen to this amazing audio here.

A few other Phoenix-related stories you might have missed:

A Second Chance at MarsThe Space Review
“Mars can be a hostile world, and getting spacecraft to that planet has never been an easy task. However, as Jeff Foust reports, the recent successful landing of Phoenix demonstrated that sometimes even on Mars there are second chances.”

Science ‘rock star’ gets lively welcome at UAArizona Star
“‘We’ve got the science of our dreams laid out for us,’ the leader of the University of Arizona’s Phoenix Mars Mission said as he returned home Monday afternoon to a throng of cheering colleagues. Asked if he feels like a rock star, mission leader Peter Smith broke into a little air guitar at the campus celebration, singing a line from The Doors: ‘C’mon baby, light my fire.'”


Meanwhile, Back on Planet Terror…

Things seem to be going well with NASA’s Phoenix lander, which touched down near the planet’s North Pole on Sunday. Controllers in Pasadena are reporting a few minor issues, the most serious being a communications problem with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that delayed the uplink of commands for movement of Phoenix’s robotic arm.

In the meantime, NASA has been releasing stunning images from the mission (images credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona). The image below shows the surface, part of a solar panel, an American flag, and a mini-DVD from The Planetary Society containing names, science fiction stories, art and other materials for future Martian explorers.

The photo below shows an overhead shot of the lander taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The orbiter also captured this stunning image of the spacecraft parachuting down to the surface, showing part of the “seven minutes of terror” Phoenix enduring during entry. This is the first time such an event has been ever captured on film.

Goodbye Ghoul – Hello Mars!

Defying the nettlesome Galactic Ghoul, NASA successfully set down its Phoenix spacecraft on the Martian surface on Sunday. The lander, which will search for evidence of life, touched down near the planet’s north pole at 4:38 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

Just before 7 p.m., controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena burst into applause as the first pictures from the lander were relayed from the surface via the Mars Odyssey orbiter. The images showed the Martian horizon, deployed solar arrays, and a landing pad. Early telemetry indicates that the spacecraft landed on a flat surface and is in good shape. The spacecraft’s robotic arm, which will scoop up soil for analysis, appears to be deployed properly.

This marks the sixth successful landing on Mars in seven attempts for the American space agency, raising NASA’s on-Mars percentage to 85.7.

JPL – Main Center Site – Check Here for Updates
– Live Streaming Coverage
Mars Phoenix Blog

Planet Terror: A NASA/JPL Production of a Robert Rodriquez Film

As NASA’s Phoenix lander barrels toward a Memorial Day weekend landing at the Martian north pole, the Red Planet is once again morphing from the subject of endless fascination into something far more sinister.

Yes, the old death planet label is being trotted out again to describe the difficulty of sending anything to Mars. NASA officials are talking up the seven minutes of “terror” the spacecraft will endure on May 25 as it enters the atmosphere and attempts a soft landing.

Perhaps these labels are appropriate for a rust-colored planet named after the Roman god of war where a number of spacecraft have indeed vanished. The Galactic Ghoul, as NASA has dubbed it, may be eagerly awaiting Phoenix’s arrival, ready to smash the lander into a thousand pieces on Mars’ perpetually frozen surface.

Or maybe not.