I haven't written about the Mars Phoenix lander in some time -- I figure y'all get your news from Emily -- but just in case I think I'd better mention that the oven on board the lander may short out the next time it's used.
This is bad news. The main goal of the lander is to take a sample of Martian "dirt" (really regolith), heat it up in the oven, and examine it for chemicals that are conducive for life. There were issues earlier, and they had to vibrate the oven to break up some stubborn clumps that were clogging the intake. This may have caused the short circuit. Engineers fear that the next time they use the oven it'll blow, so they'll treat every sample they get as if it were the one last chance to heat up a surface sample.
Therefore they'll have to make it a good one. They found water ice under the lander, so they want to get a sample of soil with a lot of ice in it, maximizing the odds of finding what they want. This will happen early next week, after the July Fourth holiday.
|This is the trench, dubbed Snow White, dug by Phoenix where it will get the next and possibly final sample of the surface of Mars|
Bummer. This has been a fantastic mission so far, and I really hope this last scoop gives the scientists what they need. But even if it doesn't, I would count the mission as a success. It was able to do many things: it landed with nearly pinpoint precision at its destination, it was photographed on the way down (man I love that shot), it was able to scoop up the soil, heat it, test it, and use a microscope to examine it. Also, the mission lifespan was only a few months anyway, since they landed during late Martian
winter summer in the northern hemisphere. In a few weeks, the Sun will be too low to power the solar panels. So this oven short is a problem, but not a major disaster.
And if they can get a good sample with ice in it for this last attempt, then I imagine the folks at Phoenix HQ will be very happy indeed.