Laser light show on Mars

The Mars Phoenix Lander has a lidar used in meteorological research of Martian weather. A lidar is basically a radar which uses lasers instead of radio waves. It is used to study particles floating around the Martian atmosphere. It also gives an unintentional laser light show. While it's pretty bare-bones, it's somewhat awe-inspiring in that it's millions of kilometers away on another planet.

In other news, the lander has been able to get a tiny bit of water in the dirt sample that had previously been stuck on the scoop (apparently not all of the water ice sublimated away during the delay) and the Phoenix mission has been extended by 30 days, which gives extra time to fully utilize all of the ovens in the TEGA instrument and allows more extended observations of the weather changes near the Martian north pole. And there is also the good news that they won't have to worry about a possible short circuit dooming the mission as long as they don't overheat the instruments.

Sticky Martian dirt

The Mars Phoenix Lander has been thwarted yet again in its attempts to scoop up Martian soil into one of its lab instruments. You might remember the previous occasion when the soil was too clumpy to fall through the screen over the instruments. The same stickiness that made the soil clump together struck again in a worse way, where the soil wouldn't even drop from the scoop.

One crazy idea why the Martian soil got stuck on the scoop is because of the slime oozed from Martian life. Of course, realistically it's the half-melted water getting frozen on the scoop, although there could be some other chemical phenomenon that is the cause. While the researchers hoped to have analyzed a sample with water ice mixed in, they'll be analyzing dry samples while they figure out how to get watery samples into the instruments. I hope a short circuit doesn't break the instruments before watery samples can be analyzed.

This is yet another reason to send humans to Mars instead of just robots. With a human around, they could have just scraped off the dirt from the scoop, and we would probably done the same amount of science that the Phoenix has done so far weeks ago. I wish we had something like a space elevator to make space exploration much cheaper.

An all-nighter for Phoenix

Fork-like conductivity probe

Some people might have an impression of robots as tireless workers capable of doing a repetitive job endlessly and accurately. But robots have limitations just like anything else. The Mars Phoenix Lander is one such example, for it only has a limited amount of power to work with, and if things go wrong, there isn't much it can do to fix itself, although the ground operators for the lander back on Earth would still try their hardest to work around any problems. It is also not infintely smart; the lander is actually fairly dumb with only a limited amount of memory.

So I guess the limited amount of power provided by its solar panels and the limited amount of memory it can use to store data before having to send it to Earth is the reason why the Mars Phoenix Lander hasn't worked on 24-hour shifts until now (except it's more like a 25-hour shift, since a Martian day is closer to 25 hours long). The lander has for the first time worked all through day and night, using a fork-like probe stuck into the Martian soil to continuously measure how well heat and electricity is conducted, using only power stored in its batteries during the night. This could help determine how the water in the soil changes between solid and vapor as the temperature changes throughout the Martian day and night. They don't expect the detection of liquid water since the region is too cold for it, though.

Double doors open to an oven on the TEGA instrument

Soon enough, Phoenix will also be initiating a direct chemical analysis of icy soil it scoops up from the Martian soil. Hopefully, we won't have problems like the last time it tried to analyze the soil, where the soil was too clumpy to pass through the screen protecting the lab instruments. And if we're lucky, it won't be the last direct chemical analysis it does if it can avoid a serious short circuit in the instruments.

Ice or salt?

Has the Mars Phoenix Lander uncovered ice that was buried under the soil? While the blast from its thrusters when it landed may have uncovered ice, it's not reachable by the robotic arm. In a trench dug up by the arm last week, named "Dodo-Goldilocks", the lander may have uncovered ice, which is much more obvious in a color picture than in a black and white photograph. Seeing white on a planet whose most popular color is red is a nice change.

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