On "Dream" Terrain, Mars Lander Readies for Experiments

Victoria Jaggard in Pasadena, California
for National Geographic News
May 26, 2008
With the successful touchdown of the Phoenix Mars Lander on Sunday night, researchers are gearing up for the first surface-based study of the red planet's north pole.

Over the next few days the probe will analyze its surroundings and transmit data on the status of its onboard instruments so that scientists can tell if conditions are right for starting experiments.

"The first day it's going to be taking a lot of pictures and finding out where we are orientated," Diana Blaney, co-investigator for soil science at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told National Geographic News.

"We expect that by next Monday we'll transition to what's called nominal surface operations, and that's when we really start going full speed."

Ideal Terrain

The first images from Phoenix transmitted hours after landing are largely in black and white.

The pictures offer views of the craft that show the landing legs, solar arrays, and the 7.7-foot-long (2.3-meter-long) robotic arm are in good health.(See photos of the Mars lander's first "self portraits".)

A handful of landscape shots have researchers especially excited, because they reveal that the probe landed in ideal terrain for its mission.

Of particular interest are natural geometric formations called polygons found on Mars's poles. Similar looking polygons also form on Earth's poles due to cycles of water freezing and thawing in permafrost.

"I know it looks a little like a parking lot, but that's a safe place to land!" Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith, of the University of Arizona, said at a press briefing on Sunday night.

It's also the type of surface feature that can help researchers understand how water and carbon dioxide cycle through the soil.

"The surface doesn't exist in isolation. It actually breathes with the seasons," Smith said.

For example, the trenches around Earth-based polygons in the Arctic fill with meltwater and then refreeze, forming wedges of ice.

In the drier Antarctic, however, the trenches fill with sand.

"If we find ice wedges in these cracks [on Mars], that would be a big discovery for our science team, because that would mean that there's liquid water," Smith said.

"We have not yet seen what we're going to be digging into, but it's probably going to be very similar. This is a scientist's dream right here on this landing site."

Readying for Experiments

Once the check-up phase is complete, the craft's robotic arm, capped with a digging scoop, can unfold and begin scraping up soil and ice.

"This arm has a lot of capability to dig through hard soil but not solid ice," Smith said.

To take up ice, "we have a rasp in the back [of the arm's scoop]. It's actually the same kind of tool used by ice carvers."

The main deck of Phoenix, which resembles a cluttered kitchen table, sports a range of equipment to analyze samples taken from different depths.

One of the key instruments on board is the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer, which will use eight tiny ovens that can reach 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit (982 degrees Celsius) to vaporize samples.

An electronic "nose" in the machine called a mass spectrometer can then identify what the released gases contain, including any organic compounds.

If organics turn up, burning scrapings from a ceramic blank brought from Earth will tell scientists whether the materials are truly Martian or if they are unavoidable contaminants.

"We have a limited number of ovens, so we want to make sure we know what we're doing," JPL's Blaney said.

That's because each oven was designed for one-time use.

"Once it's filled, it moves to another part of the instrument to be sealed," UA's Smith told National Geographic News.

"And when you bake something to over a thousand degrees, it tends to get real hard—you'd need a chisel to get that stuff out."

Phoenix will also use a device that includes a miniature wet chemistry lab and two microscopes to determine how the soil reacts with liquid water.

Samples will be mixed with water brought from Earth in four one-use-only beakers.

Sensors inside the beakers record the soil's acidity, what elements are present, and whether these materials form soluble salts—a sign that the soil might have been hospitable to life when the planet was wetter.

(Get full coverage of the search for water—and life— on Mars.)

Active Water Cycle

In addition to its search for habitable conditions, Phoenix's meteorological station is now the first high-altitude weather monitor on the red planet.

"This is an area where we have all that dynamic weather going on," JPL's Blaney said of the north pole.

Data from the station could help answer questions about Mars's water cycle, which previous studies had suggested is still very active.

(Related: "Mars's Ice Patchy, Water Cycle Quite Active, Study Reveals" [May 2, 2007].)

"We'll be able to watch how the water moves in and out of the soil," Blaney said.

In addition, "it gets so cold [in winter] that [carbon dioxide] in the atmosphere is turned into dry ice on the surface."

Studying these and other exchanges can help researchers better understand how climate processes work on Mars, which could ultimately improve our understanding of Earth's more complex climate systems.

Phoenix could help test theories that Mars has cyclical ice ages similar to those recorded on Earth.

The meteorological equipment will also study how the atmosphere varies across the seasons.

A laser beam sent vertically into the atmosphere sends light reflecting off particles of dust, and a telescope on the craft can record the size, location, and abundance of Martian particulates.

In addition, a thin mast on the lander will take temperature readings from three different heights.

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