Mars Lander Stymied by Ice; Like "Scraping a Sidewalk"

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
July 11, 2008

The Mars Phoenix lander is having a difficult time digging through the tough ice at the planet's north pole to collect a usable ice sample for analysis, mission scientists say.

In fact, they compared the digging to scraping a sidewalk.

But the researchers say they expected the icy landscape to be extremely solid and that the lander is equipped for the job.

The team is now delving deeper into the spacecraft's toolbox to gather the icy sample for delivery into the craft's Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA).

Analysis from this "bake and sniff" oven will help the scientists further their primary goals—investigating the planet's water ice, soil, and potential for life.

But troubleshooting can be difficult at a remove of 200 million miles (320 million kilometers), and the team is treating each attempt at analyzing the Martian surface as potentially its last.

Bill Farrand, of the Boulder, Colorado-based Space Science Institute, is a veteran of interplanetary robotics. He's part of the Mars Exploration Rovers Mission that has been piloting Spirit and Opportunity around the red planet for more than four years.

"Anytime you work with robots in a different kind of environment, there are going to end up being surprises you have to be wary of," he said. "That's part of the process of exploration."

Quest for Ice

During tests earlier this week two scrapers on Phoenix's robotic backhoe succeeded in creating piles of soil and ice particles in the bottom of the trench nicknamed "Snow White."

But the fragments were too small to be collected by the lander's scoop—an operation that NASA engineer Richard Volpe likened in a press statement to "trying to pick up dust with a dustpan but without a broom."

Now the team is preparing to use a drill-like rasp to grind up ice and kick it into the scoop for delivery to the TEGA.

Continued on Next Page >>


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