As the Mars Lander continues to scoop up soil for analysis, it has taken its very first microscopic image of a single piece of Martian dust.
The particle, according to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is shown at a higher magnification than anything ever seen from another planet. The piece of dust is a rounded particle about one millionth of a meter across. This particle is one of the countless specks of dust that continually swirl around the Red Planet, even coloring the Martian sky pink.
"Taking the images required the highest resolution microscope operated off of Earth and a specially designed substrate to hold the Martian dust," said Tom Pike, a Phoenix science team member, in a statement. "We always knew it was going to be technically very challenging to image particles this small."
NASA scientists say that scrutinizing the dust is a good way to gather more information about Mars since the ultra-fine dust is the link between the processes in the Martian soil and the gases in the atmosphere.
The Lander's Swiss-made atomic microscope was first used in July to begin to study images of individual particles in the soil.
Ray Arvidson, a co-investigator for the Mars Lander's robotic arm team and a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, explained then that the microscope uses a fine needle made of silicon that is scraped across crystals and soil particles to get highly detailed information.
The needle helps create something of a topographical map of the particle's surface. "It'll show us the crystal shapes and if they've been damaged by salt deposits or if they've been corroded by water," said Arvidson.
The atomic force microscope can provide details of soil-particle shapes as small as 100 nanometers, which is less than one-hundredth the width of a human hair, reported NASA. That is about 20 times smaller than what can be resolved with Phoenix's optical microscope, which has provided much higher-magnification of particles previously imaged on Mars.
While some programmers and scientists have been busy getting the microscopic image, others have been working on getting more Martian soil in the analysis ovens, which are dubbed TEGA.
Leslie Tamppari, a Phoenix project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Computerworld that the robotic arm has been doing a lot of digging on the north pole of Mars. And so far, she said, researchers have used three of the eight TEGA ovens. That third test was done on Monday night and scientists are continuing to analyze the results.
Tamppari said that NASA scientists have been focusing on getting the robotic arm to dig trenches in different areas and at different depths. "We are definitely trying to use [the robotic arm] as much as we can," she added. "We're trying to plan a strategy so we don't dig in the same area every day."
The Mars mission is focused on collecting ice and soil samples that can be analyzed in the eight different ovens, four wet-chemistry cells and the microscopic imager on the Lander. Scientists are looking for the elements that support life.
The robotic arm, which weighs between 20 and 30 pounds on Earth, is the key to the effort. The arm has a scoop attached to its end that is designed to dig up ice and soil and then deliver it to the analysis tools. No soil, no analysis.