22nd September - If the robotic arm on NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander can nudge a rock aside today, scientists on the Phoenix team would like to see what's underneath.
Engineers who develop commands for the robotic arm have prepared a plan to try displacing a rock on the north side of the lander. This rock, roughly the size and shape of a VHS videotape, is informally named "Headless."
"We don't know whether we can do this until we try," said Ashitey Trebi Ollennu, a robotics engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "The idea is to move the rock with minimum disturbance to the surface beneath it. You have to get under it enough to lift it as you push it and it doesn't just slip off the scoop."
16th September 2008 - NASA has delivered another sample into the wet chemistry lab of Phoenix Mars Lander's Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA).
The delivery was made on Sept. 12, 2008, which was Sol 107 (the 107th Martian day) of the mission, which landed on May 25, 2008.
The Wet Chemistry Laboratory mixes Martian soil with an aqueous solution from Earth as part of a process to identify soluble nutrients and other chemicals in the soil. Preliminary analysis of this soil confirms that it is alkaline, and composed of salts and other chemicals such as perchlorate, sodium, magnesium, chloride and potassium. This data validates prior results from that same location, said Michael Hecht of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., the lead scientist for MECA.
In the coming days, the Phoenix team will also fill the final four of eight single-use ovens on another soil-analysis instrument, the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer, or TEGA. The team's strategy is to deliver as many samples as possible before the power produced by Phoenix's solar panels declines due to the end of the Martian summer.
11th September 2008 - As NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander approaches the end of it's life when the Martian winter freezes it, the Lander has been beffeted by several dust devils dancing across the arctic plain this week.
These dust-lofting whirlwinds had been expected in the area, but none had been detected earlier.
The Surface Stereo Imager camera on Phoenix took 29 images of the western and southwestern horizon on Sept. 8, during mid-day hours of the lander's 104th Martian day. The next day, after the images had been transmitted to Earth, the Phoenix science team noticed a dust devil right away.
"It was a surprise to have a dust devil so visible that it stood with just the normal processing we do," said Mark Lemmon of Texas A&M University, College Station, lead scientist for the stereo camera. "Once we saw a couple that way, we did some additional processing and found there are dust devils in 12 of the images."
The Phoenix team is not worried about any damage to the spacecraft from these swirling winds. "With the thin atmosphere on Mars, the wind loads we might experience from dust devil winds are well within the design of the vehicle," said Ed Sedivy, Phoenix program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Denver, which made the spacecraft. "The lander is very rigid with the exception of the solar arrays, which once deployed, latched into position and became a tension structure."
29th August 2008 - NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander, having completed its 90-day primary mission, is continuing its science collection activities. Science and engineering teams are looking forward to at least another month of Martian exploration.
Due to the spacecraft's sufficient power and experiment capacity, NASA announced on July 31 that the mission would continue operations through Sept. 30. Once the lander finishes collecting science data, the mission teams will continue the analysis of the measurements and observations.
"We have been successful beyond my wildest dreams, and we're not done yet learning from Mars about its secrets," said Peter Smith, Phoenix principal investigator from the University of Arizona, Tucson.
"We are still working to understand the properties and the history of the ice at our landing site on the northern plains of Mars. While the sun has begun to dip below the horizon, we still have power to continue our observations and experiments. And we're hoping to see a gradual change in the Martian weather in the next few weeks," he said.
Among the critical questions the Phoenix science team is trying to answer is whether the northern region of Mars could have been a habitable zone.
Phoenix has already confirmed the presence of water ice, determined the soil is alkaline and identified magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride and perchlorate in the soil. Chemical analyses continue even as Phoenix's robotic arm reaches out for more samples to sniff and taste.
26th August 2008 - The next sample of Martian soil being grabbed for analysis is coming from a trench about three times deeper than any other trench NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander has dug.
On Tuesday, Aug. 26, the spacecraft will finish the 90 Martian days (or "sols") originally planned as its primary mission and will continue into a mission extension through September, as announced by NASA in July. Phoenix landed on May 25.
"As we near what we originally expected to be the full length of the mission, we are all thrilled with how well the mission is going," said Phoenix Project Manger Barry Goldstein of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Phoenix's main task for Sol 90 is to scoop up a sample of soil from the bottom of a trench called "Stone Soup," which is about 18 centimeters, or 7 inches deep. On a later sol, the lander's robotic arm will sprinkle soil from the sample into the third cell of the wet chemistry laboratory. This deck-mounted laboratory, part of Phoenix's Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA), has previously used two of its four soil-testing cells.
"In the first two cells we analyzed samples from the surface and the ice interface, and the results look similar. Our objective for Cell 3 is to use it as an exploratory cell to look at something that might be different," said JPL's Michael Hecht, lead scientist for MECA. "The appeal of Stone Soup is that this deep area may collect and concentrate different kinds of materials."
22nd August 2008 - NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander has scooped up a soil sample from an intermediate depth between the ground surface and a subsurface icy layer. The sample was delivered it to a laboratory oven on the spacecraft.
The robotic arm on Phoenix collected the sample, dubbed "Burning Coals," from a trench named "Burn Alive 3." The sample consisted of about one-fourth to one-half teaspoon of loose soil scooped from depth about 3 centimeters (1.2 inch) below the surface of the ground and about 1 centimeter (0.4 inch) above a hard, icy underground layer.
Data received from Phoenix early Thursday confirmed that the arm had delivered some of that sample through the doors of cell 7 on the lander's Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA) and that enough material passed through a screen and down a funnel to nearly fill the cell's tiny oven. The Phoenix team prepared commands Thursday to have TEGA close the oven and begin heating the sample to low temperature (35 degrees Celsius, or 95 degrees Fahrenheit).
The purpose of the low temperature heating is to look for ice in the sample. The next step is a middle temperature process, which heats the sample to 125 degrees Celsius (257 degrees Fahrenheit) to thoroughly dry the sample. The last heating takes the sample to 1000 degrees Celsius (1832 degrees Fahrenheit). The gases given off during these heating stages help the science team to determine properties of the Martian soil.
"We are expecting the sample to look similar to previous samples," said William Boynton of the University of Arizona, lead scientist for TEGA. "One of the things we'll be looking for is an oxygen release indicative of perchlorate."
20th August 2008 - NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander scientists and engineers are continuing to dig into the area around the lander with the spacecraft's robotic arm, looking for new materials to analyze and examining the soil and ice subsurface structure.
New trenches opened recently include the "Burn Alive 3" trench in the "Wonderland" digging area in the eastern portion of the arm's reachable workspace. Researchers choose such names informally to aid discussion.
The team is excavating one side of Burn Alive 3 down to the ice layer and plans to leave about 1 centimeter (0.4 inch) of soil above the ice on the other side. This intermediate depth, located a couple centimeters (0.8 inch) above the Martian ice-soil boundary, gives the science team the vertical profile desired for a sample dubbed "Burning Coals," intended to be the next material delivered to Phoenix's Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA).
The surface of the ground throughout the arctic plain where Phoenix landed is patterned in polygon shapes like those of permafrost areas on Earth, where the ground goes through cycles of swelling and shrinking. Some of the recent and planned digging by Phoenix takes advantage of landing within arm's reach both of the centers of polygons and the troughs between polygons. For example, the "Stone Soup" trench has been dug in a trough in the "Cupboard" excavation area, near the western end of the arm's workspace. The team plans to dig in this zone as deep as possible to study properties of the soil and ice deep in a polygon trough.
A sample from the Cupboard area may be delivered to the lander's wet chemistry lab, part of the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA). The location for obtaining a sample would depend on results from further digging in "Upper Cupboard," and use of the thermal and electrical conductivity probe on the arm, inserted into icy soil within Upper Cupboard to test for the presence of salts.
14th August 2008 - NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander has taken the first-ever image of a single particle of Mars' ubiquitous dust, using its atomic force microscope.
The particle -- shown at higher magnification than anything ever seen from another world -- is a rounded particle about one micrometer, or one millionth of a meter, across. It is a speck of the dust that cloaks Mars. Such dust particles color the Martian sky pink, feed storms that regularly envelop the planet and produce Mars' distinctive red soil.
"This is the first picture of a clay-sized particle on Mars, and the size agrees with predictions from the colors seen in sunsets on the Red Planet," said Phoenix co-investigator Urs Staufer of the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland, who leads a Swiss consortium that made the microscope.
"Taking this image required the highest resolution microscope operated off Earth and a specially designed substrate to hold the Martian dust," said Tom Pike, Phoenix science team member from Imperial College London. "We always knew it was going to be technically very challenging to image particles this small."
10th August 2008 - Vibration of the screen above a laboratory oven on NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander on Saturday succeeded in getting enough soil into the oven to begin analysis. Commands were sent for the lander's Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer to begin analysis of the soil sample from a trench called "Rosy Red."
8th August 2008 - Phoenix Mars mission scientists spoke today on research in progress concerning an ongoing investigation of perchlorate salts detected in soil analyzed by the wet chemistry laboratory aboard NASA's Phoenix Lander.
"Finding perchlorates is neither good nor bad for life, but it does make us reassess how we think about life on Mars," said Michael Hecht of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., lead scientist for the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA), the instrument that includes the wet chemistry laboratory.
If confirmed, the result is exciting, Hecht said, "because different types of perchlorate salts have interesting properties that may bear on the way things work on Mars if -- and that's a big 'if ' -- the results from our two teaspoons of soil are representative of all of Mars, or at least a significant portion of the planet."
The Phoenix team had wanted to check the finding with another lander instrument, the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer (TEGA), which heats soil and analyzes gases driven off. But as that TEGA experiment was underway last week, speculative news reports surfaced claiming the team was holding back a major finding regarding habitability on Mars.
"The Phoenix project has decided to take an unusual step" in talking about the research when its scientists are only about half-way through the data collection phase and have not yet had time to complete data analysis or perform needed laboratory work, said Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson. Scientists are still at the stage where they are examining multiple hypotheses, given evidence that the soil contains perchlorate.
"We decided to show the public science in action because of the extreme interest in the Phoenix mission, which is searching for a habitable environment on the northern plains of Mars," Smith added. "Right now, we don't know whether finding perchlorate is good news or bad news for possible life on Mars."
4th August 2008 - Scientists are analyzing results from soil samples delivered several weeks ago to science instruments on NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander to understand the landing site's soil chemistry and mineralogy.
Within the last month, two samples have been analyzed by the Wet Chemistry Lab of the spacecraft's Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer, or MECA, suggesting one of the soil constituents may be perchlorate, a highly oxidizing substance. The Phoenix team has been waiting for complementary results from the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer, or TEGA, which also is capable of detecting perchlorate. TEGA is a series of ovens and analyzers that "sniff" vapors released from substances in a sample.
NASA will hold a media teleconference on Tuesday, Aug. 5, at 11 a.m. PDT (2 p.m. EDT), to discuss these recent science activities.
3rd August 2008 - The internet has been awash with speculation that the instruments, including the Atomic Force Microscope from Nanosurf, held in the MECA suite on the Phoenix Mars Lander has found life on Mars. Speculation is rife that the Lander has found samples that could only be a form of faeces. More likely is the finding of a carbon compound that is somehow animal or plant related. Although NASA has denied the rumours they have found something. The MECA team were absent from a White House briefing last week where evidence was presented to the President proving the existence of water on Mars. At that time they said the MECA team had no findings to discuss - but now they do.
31st July 2008 - All the previous evidence certainly pointed that way but NASA scientists have just confirmed that Mars does indeed have water. Thermal Analysis has proved water is present on Mars - and the scientists have also commented that the rather than being an isolated patch, images of the surface of Mars show the landscape to be "ice-dominated terrain".
"We have water," said William Boynton of the University of Arizona, lead scientist for the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer, or TEGA. "We've seen evidence for this water ice before in observations by the Mars Odyssey orbiter and in disappearing chunks observed by Phoenix last month, but this is the first time Martian water has been touched and tasted."
With enticing results so far and the spacecraft in good shape, NASA also announced operational funding for the mission will extend through Sept. 30. The original prime mission of three months ends in late August. The mission extension adds five weeks to the 90 days of the prime mission.
27th to 29th July 2008 - Scoop on the Phoenix Mars lander has been having trouble delivering samples accurately to the instrumentation for analysis. It appears ice mixed with the soil is making it sticky resulting it difficulty pouring the sample from the scoop. NASA engineers are trying a range of different techniques to overcome this problem.
25th July 2008 - NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander has groomed the bottom of a shallow trench to prepare for collecting a sample to be analyzed from a hard subsurface layer where the soil may contain frozen water.
23rd July 2008 - Phoenix early Tuesday finished its longest work shift of the mission. The lander stayed awake for 33 hours, completing tasks that included rasping and scraping by the robotic arm, in addition to atmosphere observations in coordination with simultaneous observations by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
"Our rasping test yesterday gave us enough confidence that we're now planning for the next use of the rasp to be for acquiring a sample to be delivered to TEGA," said Phoenix project manager Barry Goldstein of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. TEGA is Phoenix's Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer, an instrument that heats samples in small ovens and uses a mass spectrometer to study the vapors driven off by the heating.
July 20th 2008 - NASA has released some 3D images of Mars. You'll need a set of Red-Blue glasses and the images are here.
July 18th 2008 - Has life been found on Mars? Here's a picture from Nanosurf showing their Martian mascot Surfi with the first AFM image from Mars.
July 17th 2008 - Not much activity has been going on with the AFM in the MECA unit aboard the Mars Lander over the past week. Back on earth the scientific teams are being bombarded with massive amounts of data and are preparing presentations of preliminary findings.
On Mars there was a dramatic moment when the Lander ignored commands from NASA and partially shut itself down. Digging was continuing on Mars when NASA sent commands for a manouvre that the Lander deemed unsafe. Built in software identified a flaw in the commands that would have caused the robot arm to use too much force and break its own wrist. So the Lander automatically shut down the robot arm to prevent any damage.
July 10th 2008 - NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander has finally used the onboard atomic force microscope from Nanosurf. Atomictouched Martian soil with a fork-like probe for the first time and begun using a microscope that examines shapes of tiny particles by touching them.
The first Atomic Force Microscope Image from Mars
This Swiss-made microscope builds an image of the surface of a particle by sensing it with a sharp tip at the end of a spring, all microfabricated from a sliver of silicon. The sensor rides up and down following the contour of the surface, providing information
The first touch of an atomic force microscope tip to a substrate on the microscopy station's sample-presentation wheel served as a validation test. The substrate will be used to hold soil particles in place for inspection by the microscope. The microscope's first imaging began Wednesday and produced a calibration image of a grooved substrate. "It's just amazing when you think that the entire area in this image fits on an eyelash. I'm looking forward to exciting things to come," Hecht said.
With these developments in the past two days, the spacecraft has put to use all the capabilities of its Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer, or MECA, suite of instruments. Researchers have begun analyzing data this week from the second sample of soil tested by MECA's wet chemistry laboratory.
Meanwhile, the Phoenix team is checking for the best method to gather a sample of Martian ice to analyze using the lander's Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer, which heats samples and identifies vapors from them. Researchers are using Phoenix's robotic arm to clear off a patch of hard material uncovered in a shallow trench informally called "Snow White." They plan in coming days to begin using a motorized rasp on the back of the arm's scoop to loosen bits of the hard material, which is expected to be rich in frozen water.
July 8th 2008 - NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander used its Robotic Arm to deliver a second sample of soil for analysis by the spacecraft's wet chemistry laboratory, data received from Phoenix on Sunday night confirmed.
Results from testing this sample will be compared in coming days to the results from the first Martian soil analyzed by the wet chemistry laboratory two weeks ago. That laboratory is part of Phoenix's Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer.
The main activity on the lander's schedule for today is testing a method for scraping up a sample of icy material and getting it into the scoop at the end of the Robotic Arm. Photography before, during and after the process will allow evaluation of this method. If the test goes well, the science team plans to use this method for gathering the next sample to be delivered to Phoenix's bake-and-sniff instrument, the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer.
July 3rd 2008 - The next sample delivered to NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander’s Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer (TEGA) will be ice-rich, but problems are expected. A team of engineers and scientists assembled to assess TEGA after a short circuit was discovered in the instrument has concluded that another short circuit could occur when the oven is used again. “Since there is no way to assess the probability of another short circuit occurring, we are taking the most conservative approach and treating the next sample to TEGA as possibly our last,” said Peter Smith, Phoenix’s principal investigator.
July 1st 2008 - NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander enlarged the "Snow White" trench and scraped up little piles of icy soil on Saturday, June 28, the 33rd Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Scientists say that the scrapings are ideal for the lander's analytical instruments. Phoenix's overall goals are to: dig to water frozen under subsurface soil, touch, examine, vaporize and sniff the soil and ice to discover the history of water on Mars, determine if the Martian arctic soil could support life, and study Martian weather from a polar perspective.
June 26th 2008 - The scientific team of the Phoenix Mars Lander reports that the wet chemistry experiments conducted earlier in the week have delivered promising results. The tests showed that Martian mud contained a range of nutrients and was alkaline with a pH of 8 to 9. A perfect combination for harbouring life on Mars.
June 24th 2008 - NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander repositioned its robotic arm slightly today and is now poised to deliver Martian soil to its wet chemistry laboratory. The delivery and analysis is set down to occur tomorrow. The experiements will be done in the MECA suite of tools and will include testing the soil for salts, acidity and other characteristics.
June 21st 2008 - Soil sample has been delivered to the optical microscope for analysis. More soil remains in the scoop of the robotic arm ready for scientists to give the command to the Phoenix Mars Lander to deliver it to MECA. At this time the Nanosurf Atomic Force Microscope may be used on Mars for the first time.
June 19th 2008 - NASA scientists believe the Phoenix Mars Lander has found water ice on Mars. Although the sample examined in the TEGA was found not to contain any ice, imaging from Mars indicates that ice is present just below the Martian surface. Digging on June 15th uncovered some bright white, dice sized objects. Salt was one of the initial possibilites of what the material might be. Those bright white objects have now disappeared and NASA scientists are convinced they were chunks of ice that have now evaporated.
June 18th 2008 - Scientists have run some tests on the flash memory aboard the Phoenix Mars lander after losing some non-critical scientific data. "The spacecraft is healthy and fully commandable, but we are proceeding cautiously until we understand the root cause of this event," said Phoenix Project Manager Barry Goldstein of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
June 17th 2008 - NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander began digging in an area called "Wonderland" early Tuesday, taking its first scoop of soil from a polygonal surface feature within the "national park" region that mission scientists have been preserving for science.
The lander's Robotic Arm created the new test trench called "Snow White" on June 17, the 22nd Martian day, or sol, after the Phoenix spacecraft landed on May 25. During Tuesday’s dig, the arm didn't reach the hard white material, possibly ice, that Phoenix exposed previously in the first trench it dug into the Martian soil.
June 16th 2008 - One of the ovens on NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander continued baking its first sample of Martian soil over the weekend, while the Robotic Arm dug deeper into the soil to learn more about white material previously discovered under the surface of Mars.
"The oven is working very well and living up to our expectations," said Phoenix co-investigator Bill Boynton of the University of Arizona, Tucson. Boynton leads the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer (TEGA), or oven instrument, for Phoenix.
June 13th 2008 - New observations from NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander provide the most magnified view ever seen of Martian soil, showing particles clumping together even at the smallest visible scale.
"It's been more than 11 years since we had the idea to send a microscope to Mars and I'm absolutely gobsmacked that we're now looking at the soil of Mars at a resolution that has never been seen before," said Tom Pike of Imperial College London. He is a Phoenix co-investigator working on the lander's Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer.
The sample includes some larger, black, glassy particles as well as smaller reddish ones. "We may be looking at a history of the soil," said Pike. "It appears that original particles of volcanic glass have weathered down to smaller particles with higher concentration of iron."
June 12th 2008 - NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander sprinkled a spoonful of Martian soil Wednesday onto the sample wheel of the spacecraft's robotic microscope station, images received early Thursday confirmed.
"It looks like a light dusting and that's just what we wanted. The Robotic Arm team did a great job," said Michael Hecht of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. He is the lead scientist for the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA) instrument on Phoenix.
Scoop putting soil sample into box containing key parts of Phoenix's Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer, or MECA, instrument suite
June 11th 2008 - NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander has filled its first oven with Martian soil.
"We have an oven full," Phoenix co-investigator Bill Boynton of the University of Arizona, Tucson, said today. "It took 10 seconds to fill the oven. The ground moved." Boynton leads the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer instrument, or TEGA, for Phoenix. The instrument has eight separate tiny ovens to bake and sniff the soil to assess its volatile ingredients, such as water.
June 10th 2008 - Sprinkling method proves successful and a small layer of fine particles was placed on the top surface of the instrument suite that includes the microscope, the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer, or MECA.
"This is good news," said Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis, lead scientist for the Robotic Arm. He said that the clumping tendency of Martian soil at the Phoenix site and some earlier landing sites comes from extremely fine particles filling in gaps between coarser, sand-size particles, perhaps together with an ingredient acting to cement particles together. Future soil samples may be prepared prior to delivery by chopping and scraping them with blades on the scoop.
Fine particles sprinkled on the top of MECA
8th June 2008 - Methods for shaking and sprinkling the samples into the Phoenix instruments tested. These methods include a trial of sprinkling samples in the MECA unit housing the AFM from Nanosurf.
7th June 2008 - Lander attempts to put soil into Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer, or TEGA. None of the sample enters the oven chamber for analysis
6th June 2008 - Optical microscope on Lander returns highest resolution images ever taken of Mars surface. Images are of dust blown onto the lander during the landing itself.
This image shows a 3 millimeter (0.12 inch) diameter silicone target after it has been exposed to dust kicked up by the landing. It is the highest resolution image of dust and sand ever acquired on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
5th June 2008 - Testing completed sucessfully on robot arm scoop. Lander continuing to automatically photograph the region around it while NASA fixes a problem with command relays to and from the Mars orbiter. Once fixed the lander will put soil into the on board instruments for testing.
3rd June 2008 - Robot arm scoops soil in tests to prepare for putting soil samples inside instuments within the lander
29th May 2008 - Phoenix lander is returning images from the surface of Mars and preparing to use the robotic arm
25th May 2008 - Phoenix Lander arrived successfully and safely on the surface of the artic region of Mars
NASA, JPL, University of Arizona image taken from Mars Orbiter of Phoenix landing with parachutes deployed