Phoenix Mars Lander's Robotic Arm Ready To Dig - InformationWeek

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5/28/2008
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Phoenix Mars Lander's Robotic Arm Ready To Dig

Despite a radio glitch, the space agency said that the lander was still able to carry out backup activities ordered through commands that were sent Monday.


New data beamed back by Phoenix show it's in good health after its first night on Mars. -- Photo by NASA

New data beamed back by Phoenix show it's in good health after its first night on Mars.

Photo by NASA

After successfully marking a series of "firsts" for NASA, the Phoenix Mars Lander suffered radio problems, delaying the start of its main task: digging into frozen soil.

NASA said the radio problems were short-lived and the UHF radio system has been restored.

The problems prevented communication between the lander and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which meant that the Phoenix could not receive any new commands from Earth. That delayed digging by one day, NASA said.

NASA did not immediately determine the cause of Tuesday's outage, during which the radio went into standby mode. The space agency said that the lander was still able to carry out backup activities ordered through commands that were sent Monday.

Phoenix Mars Lander captured images of the surrounded landscape and collected other data, including a preliminary weather report. It successfully sent the information to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter by Tuesday evening. The orbiter received the information and relayed it back to Earth, NASA said.

The weather gauges indicate temperatures ranging from minus 80 degrees Celsius (minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit) to minus 30 degrees Celsius (minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit), average pressure of 8.55 millibars, less than one hundredth of the sea level pressure on Earth, NASA reported. The skies above Mars were clear and 20-kilometer-per-hour (13-mile-per-hour) winds blew from the northeast.

A view of the American flag and a mini-DVD on the Phoenix's deck could be seen. The Planetary Society provided the DVD, which contains a message to future Martian explorers, science fiction tales, Mars-inspired art, and the names of more than 250,000 people.

Among the images delivered back to Earth were the first photographs that one spacecraft captured of another landing on Mars. One image from the high-resolution camera known as HiRISE provides a full-resolution view of the lander and its parachute descending with Heimdall crater in the background.

One of the images indicates that the lander is in a good position for its mission, according to Phoenix Principal Investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona.

"The workspace is ideal for us because it looks very diggable," he said. "We're very happy to see just a few rocks scattered in the digging area."

On Wednesday, NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter was scheduled to relay new commands to the lander. That should allow the lander to move its robotic arm and dig for samples of icy soil and deliver them to other laboratory instruments aboard. The instruments will analyze the samples. The lander will also be commanded to take more photographs.

The story has been edited to clarify Mars' surface temperatures.

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