Unforeseen problems continue to bug the Phoenix Mars Lander, but engineers are hopeful obstacles can still be overcome. A robotic scoop finally deployed, capturing Martian polar soil, but the material clumped on a screen and only a few particles passed into analysis equipment.
The team operating the Lander developed a technique for sprinkling soil from a tilted scoop while it is being vibrated by a motorized rasp. Previously, the soil was just dumped. The rasp had been designed to scoop up a subsurface sample of ice, a mission that is still planned.
"This is good news," says Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis, lead scientist for the robotic arm. According to Arvidson, Martian soil clumps because of extremely fine particles filling in gaps between coarser, sand-size particles, perhaps with a material that cements particles together. Another strategy: Future soil samples may be chopped and scraped with blades on the scoop.