As winter?s icy grip prepares to take hold of the northern plains of Mars, NASA scientists are scrambling to fill all of the instruments aboard the Phoenix Mars Lander with samples of Martian dirt before the sun sets below the horizon and the spacecraft loses its energy source.
The next dirt sample delivered to the
lander will go into the fourth and final cell of
The strategy is to take as many samples of the dirt as possible while there is still enough energy for the spacecraft to use its robotic arm to dig up the Martian surface.
"Now that the sun is not
constantly above the horizon at our landing site we are generating less power
every sol," said
(One hundred watt-hours is equivalent to the power needed to illuminate a 100-watt bulb for one hour.)
The $420 million Phoenix
mission is digging up and analyzing samples of the Martian dirt and
rock-hard subsurface ice layer in the northern plains of the Martian arctic, in
an effort to shed light on Mars' past potential habitability.
The sample that will be delivered to
the last of the lander's wet chemistry lab cells will
be from the "Snow
White" trench on the eastern end of
The perchlorate finding was of particular interest because
of the compound's potential to be an energy source for microbes, but analyses
of the dirt in TEGA haven't turned up a signal of perchlorate.
The next TEGA sample will also come
from Snow White. The team plans to use the rasp on the end of
TEGA's tiny ovens bake the surface samples to different temperatures and analyses the vapors given off at each temperature increase to identify the chemical make-up of the Martian surface dirt.
A valve that pushes the vapors given off by the sample to the lander's mass spectrometer for analysis is no longer reliable, NASA said, but researchers think that the remaining samples going into TEGA will give off enough carbon dioxide and water vapor to carry any other vapors along to the spectrometer.
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