Phoenix prepares for life-on-Mars dig

Phoenix prepares for life-on-Mars dig

Nasa’s Phoenix Mars Lander spent its first full day in the Martian arctic plains checking its instruments in preparation for an ambitious digging mission to study whether the site could have once been habitable.

The three-legged lander set down on Sunday in relatively flat terrain covered by fissures outlining polygon shapes. The geometric cracks are probably caused by the repeated freezing and thawing of buried ice.

Images beamed back yesterday showed the elbow joint of Phoenix’s trench-digging robotic arm still partly covered by a protective sheath. The sheath was supposed to fully unwrap after landing.

Mission scientists downplayed the problem, saying they could still wiggle out the arm for digging.

“This is a minor inconvenience,” said Deborah Bass, deputy project scientist at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “We’re going to have to do a little bit of disentangling.”

Ms Bass said the process of moving the 8ft-long arm was still scheduled for today.

It will be another week before Phoenix takes the first scoop of soil. After the initial taste test, the lander will spend the rest of the mission clawing through layers of soil to reach ice that is believed to be buried inches to a foot below the surface.

“We’ve only looked at one tiny little slit” of the landing site, said principal investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson.

While Phoenix continued to dazzle scientists with scenes from the Martian high northern latitudes, one image that it returned of the sun came out bleeded. Instead of a point in the sky, the sun appeared like a light sabre sword. Ms Bass said engineers were working to fix the problem.

Mission co-scientist Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St Louis is pleased with Phoenix’s progress so far.

“Like a union worker, it went right to work,” he said.

Scientists were especially interested in how the polygon patterns in the ground formed at Phoenix’s landing site. The fractures look similar to those found on Earth’s polar regions. Mr Arvidson said Phoenix appeared within reach of a shallow trough that could be a potential place to dig.

Launched last summer, Phoenix sailed through 422 million miles of space over a period of about 10 months. The riskiest part of the journey came seven minutes before landing, when Phoenix, operating on autopilot, had to use the atmosphere’s friction, deploy its parachute and fire its dozen thrusters to slow to a 5mph thump.

The lander executed the manoeuvre almost flawlessly. The only snag came when it released the parachute seven seconds later than expected. The late timing caused the spacecraft to land slightly down range from its bull’s-eye mark.

Two hours after touchdown, Phoenix beamed back a flood of images revealing the first peek of the polar horizon. It also sent back images of its unfolded heat shield and another of its foot planted in soil next to pebble-sized rocks.

Yesterday Nasa released a grainy black-and-white image captured by its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which had a bird’s eye view of Phoenix coming down on its parachute. The parachute appeared as a white speck connected to Phoenix, which looked like a dot.

Phoenix joins rovers Spirit and Opportunity on the Martian surface. During its primary three-month mission, Phoenix will study whether the ice melted in the past at the landing site and probe the soil for evidence of organic compounds. It cannot directly detect fossils or living organisms.

The £210m (€263m) mission is led by University of Arizona and managed by JPL.

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