NASA: With Martian ice discovered, major tests beginning

Programmers also building patch to fix software bug that caused loss of some photos

After a technical glitch and the loss of data last week, NASA engineers and scientists are finally finding what they'd hoped to discover in the latest Mars mission -- signs of elements that could support life.

Dice-sized pieces of whitish matter dug up in a trench on the Martian north pole appears to be ice, according to Ray Arvidson, a co-investigator for Mars Lander's robotic arm team and a professor at Washington University in the US. Dug up in a 7-centimeter to 8-centimeter deep trench by the Lander's robotic arm, the material disappeared after being exposed to sun light, leading scientists to believe it was ice that simply melted.

The chunks were left at the bottom of a trench that NASA engineers have dubbed Dodo-Goldilocks on June 15, during the 20th Martian day since landing. Several chunks were gone when the Phoenix Lander examined the trench about four days later. The material, which is brighter than the soil around it, looks white or even blue under color enhancements.

And ice - or rather water - is exactly what scientists were hoping to find on Mars.

"This week has been like a month's worth of adrenaline," said Arvidson. "If they're ice deposits, they should disappear because water ice is not stable on the surface of Mars at that latitude. And it's gone. It's disappeared. As soon as the sun hit that material, it disappeared. It's ice. This is why we went, so it's pretty exciting."

Arvidson said while they were waiting to see how the whitish chunks would respond to being left out in the sun, they instructed the robotic arm on the Lander to dig other trenches. During one of the digs, the robotic arm faulted out, stopping sampling in its tracks. Arvidson explained that the robot hit a very hard material and after the third time, and it automatically stopped work on the job. "It's pretty smart in terms of software," he added. "If the motors on three joints exceed a certain limit, the arm thinks 'this is too much for me. I'm going to stop and just wait for new instructions.' "

The professor noted that parts of that last trench are white or blue in appearance. "In this case, we think we actually hit pore ice, which is ice intermixed with the pores of the soil," said Arvidson. "It's exactly what we expect. About five centimeters down we predicted the ice would start. The pores of the soil would be filled with ice. We can scrape it and rasp it. We'll unfold our full arsenal of ice attack tools."

That means scientists have found ice in two different trenches - finds that Arvidson called "spectacularly good".

"If we can confirm that there is water or ice there, it will tell us there is a potential for life," said Matthew Robinson, the robotic arm flight software engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Water is one of the main elements of life. It goes back to the fundamental question of 'Are we alone out there?' Is there life there even in a microscopic form? Or is there the possibility that there used to be life.

"If microscopic life exists elsewhere, other life could exist elsewhere," he added.

Now NASA's scientists are getting ready to launch a major series of tests. The next step is for programmers to send code to the robotic arm that instructs it to scoop up more soil and deliver it to three different on-board analyzers - an oven that will bake it and test the gases that are emitted; a microscopic imager that will send photos back to Earth, and a wet chemistry lab.

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Sharon Gaudin

Computerworld
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