NASA: After ice test glitch, Mars robot to analyze soil

Agency is now evaluating scientists' proposal to extend Mars mission until late November

After hitting a snag in their attempts to analyze Martian ice, NASA scientists are expanding their scope to test dry soil.

Scientists also are asking NASA for more time to run tests on the Martian north pole. Barry Goldstein, project manager for this Mars mission, told Computerworld that a review of the proposal to fund the research through late November started Tuesday.

Scientists are looking for elements on the planet that could support life, so determining whether there is water on Mars is a key goal of the mission.

After a short circuit in one of the Mars Lander's test ovens last month, NASA moved the critical ice test to the front of the line in case the next run is the instrument's last. However, Goldstein said they ran into trouble when, on two separate attempts, scraped up ice chips adhered to the back of the scoop on the robotic arm and wouldn't drop into the oven.

"We believe it's because it's water-rich," said Goldstein. "It's the same concept of not sticking your tongue to a cold surface."

On Sunday, engineers and programmers sent the robotic arm new instructions to try the ice test again, this time running the rasp on the robotic arm to try to shake out the ice sample. It didn't work.

On Tuesday, programmers sent code to the robotic arm to instruct it to scoop up dry soil and place that into the oven, which is dubbed TEGA. Goldstein said they're not giving up on analyzing the ice but will continue on with other testing while they work to find an answer to the problems.

"Time is ticking so we convinced NASA t let us move on and look at other soil samples," he said. "We're committed to using all eight ovens [on board the Lander]."

He added that they now are quite certain they have the short circuit issue under control. And since they've already proven that there is ice - and previously water - on Mars, the ice analysis isn't as critical as it once was.

Late last month, NASA announced that its initial analysis showed that Martian soil could support life. Saying they were "flabbergasted" by the data they were receiving, scientists pointed out that the minerals in the soil on Mars are typical of soils here on Earth. They even noted that asparagus, green beans and turnips would thrive in the alkaline dirt.

Then earlier this month, The Jet Propulsion Laboratory reported that its scientists have 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.

Brown University professor John Mustard, a member of the investigative team, said in a previous statement that they are finding dozens of sites where future missions can land to understand if Mars was ever habitable and, if so, to look for signs of past life.

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Sharon Gaudin

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