Thursday, June 12, 2008

Phoenix shakes and bakes

After a tense few days for mission scientists, when it seem possible that the primary science experiment on the Phoenix lander would fail, it has been announced that a soil sample has been successfully delivered to Oven number 4, and that testing is to begin with the TEGA (Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer). The landing and deployment of Phoenix's robotic arm had gone flawlessly, but when a first sample of Martian soil was scooped up and delivered to the Oven, problems began. The experiment is designed to allow only a small amount of fine material into the Oven, but it looked like the Martian soil was so densely clumped that it was unable to pass through the filter to the Oven. NASA scientists sent several commands to try and shake the soil through, but these appeared to fail. After six attempts there was no luck, but then scientists rechecked the oven and found that against all expectations, it was full. Speculation is that the cumulative effect of the shaking or some changes to the cohesiveness of the soil unclogged things, but thankfully the mission is now back on track.