NASA: Robotic arm gives Martian soil a zap

Atomic force microscope can provide details of soil-particle shapes as small as 100 nanometers.

As NASA scientists prepare to give a faulty instrument on the Mars Lander another try, they've also been using an electric fork and an atomic force microscope to get more clues about the makeup of Martian soil.

"It all relates to putting the whole story together," said Ray Arvidson, a co-investigator for the Mars Lander's robotic arm team and a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "We're trying to understand the overall evolution of the planet and the soil covering it."

The Mars Lander, which is on the northern pole of the red planet, has been using the fork-like probe for weeks now. The Lander's robotic arm has been sticking the fork in the air to gage the humidity. Late last week, the robotic arm stuck the fork in the ground for the first time and gave it a good zap.

The fork, which has four 1.5-centimeter prongs, sends out both heat and electrical pulses to check the soil's thermal and water conductivity, according to Arvidson.

The Lander's Swiss-made atomic microscope was used late last week to study images of individual particles in the soil. Arvidson explained 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 you make a topographical map," he added. "It'll show us the crystal shapes and if they've been damaged by salt deposits or if they've been corroded by water."

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.

All of this work comes while NASA runs a week of tests after a short circuit temporarily derailed one of the Lander's test ovens.

The Lander's eight analysis ovens, which have been dubbed TEGA, heat Martian soil so that any gases emitted can be analyzed. On its first test, in mid-June, one of the ovens short circuited. NASA scientists stalled any further TEGA analysis while they were studying the problem. The repaired oven will first be used to test Martian ice, according to Arvidson.

"Because of the possibility, even the remote possibility, that TEGA might go belly-up in the next sample, we wanted to go straight to ice," said Arvidson in a previous interview. "We cleared the pathway to get the next sample from the ice. The prudent choice is to go off and get the most important sample."

The Mars Lander, which is on a one-way mission to Mars, is expected to gather and analyze samples from the northern pole of the planet for a total of three months. Scientists are looking for the elements that could support life, and determining whether there is water on Mars has been one of the mission's key goals.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.
Sharon Gaudin

Sharon Gaudin

Computerworld
Show Comments

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Tom Pope

Dynabook Portégé X30L-G

Ultimately this laptop has achieved everything I would hope for in a laptop for work, while fitting that into a form factor and weight that is remarkable.

Tom Sellers

MSI P65

This smart laptop was enjoyable to use and great to work on – creating content was super simple.

Lolita Wang

MSI GT76

It really doesn’t get more “gaming laptop” than this.

Jack Jeffries

MSI GS75

As the Maserati or BMW of laptops, it would fit perfectly in the hands of a professional needing firepower under the hood, sophistication and class on the surface, and gaming prowess (sports mode if you will) in between.

Taylor Carr

MSI PS63

The MSI PS63 is an amazing laptop and I would definitely consider buying one in the future.

Christopher Low

Brother RJ-4230B

This small mobile printer is exactly what I need for invoicing and other jobs such as sending fellow tradesman details or step-by-step instructions that I can easily print off from my phone or the Web.

Featured Content

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?