NASA: Success! Mars Lander finally does first ice test

And US government extends the Lander's Martian mission through late September.

Just as NASA announced the extension of the Phoenix Mars mission by five weeks, its scientists disclosed that they finally got the first Martian ice sample into one of the analysis ovens onboard the Lander.

NASA scientists earlier this week had decided to temporarily bypass the ice test because they had repeatedly run into trouble trying to get ice samples into the test ovens for analysis. The ice simply kept sticking to the back of the scoop on the robotic arm.

So on Wednesday engineers and programmers sent the robotic arm new instructions to gather a dry soil sample and get that into the ovens while they tried to solve the ice delivery problem. As chance would have it, when they got the soil into the oven, they discovered that it contained a small amount of ice, so they actually got exactly what they wanted.

"We've now touched it and tasted it and I'd like to say that it tastes very fine," said William Boynton, co-investigator on the Mars mission. "There were a lot of champagne corks popping in the downlink room last night."

He noted that scientists spent nearly a full month trying to wrangle that first ice sample into the test oven.

Boynton added that they didn't notice the Martian ice was present in the sample until they started heating up the oven and the ice began to melt. They'll heat the oven about four more times and work with the analysis from all the tests. The eight ovens - dubbed TEGA - onboard the Lander are designed to allow scientists to gauge the gases that are emitted when samples are heated up.

During Thursday's NASA press conference announcing the successful ice test, scientists also noted that the Mars mission has been extended. Barry Goldstein, project manager for this Mars mission, told Computerworld earlier this week of that the agency had proposed extending the research through late November.

The mission has not been extended that far but it has been stretched from late August to late September, according to Peter Smith, primary investigator for the mission. "The extended mission will be time to explore other areas within reach of our robotic arm," he added during the press conference.

Smith said they are excited to be able to verify the existence of ice on the Red Planet. Late in June, NASA scientists announced that they had finally found what they'd hoped to discover in the Mars mission -- signs of elements that could support life. Dice-size pieces of whitish matter dug up in a trench on the Martian north pole were found to be ice.

Then earlier this month, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory reported that its scientists had concluded that the Red Planet was once awash in water. For thousands or even millions of years, rivers, lakes and deltas coursed across the surface of Mars.

"We're very pleased to see we landed right on top of water ice," he added. "This is good news for us. The ice could have been around us but not near or right under us. We hope to be able to answer the question: Is this a habitable zone? It'll be for future missions to find out of anybody's home and is this habitable for future human missions."

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Sharon Gaudin

Computerworld
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