There hasn’t been a ton of news coming our of the Phoenix Mars Mission, which landed in late May and is still struggling with soil delivery to on-board labs. Scientists worked with engineers last weekend, examining how the icy soil on Mars interacts with the scoop on the Lander’s robotic arm. They are experimenting with various techniques to deliver a sample to one of the instruments.
“It has really been a science experiment just learning how to interact with the icy soil on Mars — how it reacts with the scoop, its stickiness, whether it’s better to have it in the shade or the sunlight,” said Phoenix Principal Investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona.
A month ago, it was announced that initial chemistry experiments had yielded useful information. “We are awash in chemistry data,” said Michael Hecht of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, lead scientist for the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer, or MECA, instrument on Phoenix. “We’re trying to understand what is the chemistry of wet soil on Mars, what’s dissolved in it, how acidic or alkaline it is.” Three more wet-chemistry cells are still available for use later in the mission.
The Martian soil appears to be an analog to soils found in the upper dry valleys in Antarctica. The soil just below the surface on the landing site is described as very basic, with a pH of between eight and nine. Compounds of salts found there include magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride.
Another analytical instrument, the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer (TEGA), has baked its first soil sample to 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,800 degrees Fahrenheit). TEGA scientists have begun analyzing the gases released at a range of temperatures to identify the chemical make-up of soil and ice. Analysis is a weeks-long process.
Would the conditions present support life? Well, nothing has been discovered yet that would rule that out.