LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - After days of struggling with sticky Martian dirt, the Phoenix Mars Lander has unexpectedly succeeded in getting its first soil sample into an onboard laboratory for analysis, jubilant NASA scientists said on Wednesday.
The breakthrough came after the lander spent days vibrating a screen over its onboard Thermal Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA) in hopes that the clumpy soil would break loose and fall into the onboard ovens. The scientists were caught by surprise when the trick worked on the seventh, and likely last, try.
Members of the normally staid Phoenix team, who have been forced to watch for much of the last week as their first Martian soil sample lingered maddeningly close to the ovens, celebrated by cheering and dancing around the room to K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s 1970s disco hit “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty.”
“When I announced that the (vibrating) process had terminated early because the oven was full of dirt, the group just went up into cheers. I got a standing ovation and started playing some ‘Shake Shake Shake’ music and just had a good time,” said William Boynton of the University of Arizona in Tucson, who is overseeing the TEGA experiments.
Boynton speculated that the dirt, scooped from the surface of Mars, where Phoenix touched down on May 25 at the arctic circle of the Red Planet, may have finally broken apart because it had dried out after days sitting on top of the TEGA.
“The dirt is very clumpy and it’s got a lot of cohesion to it, so it’s difficult to pass through the small screen we have (over the ovens),” Boynton told reporters at a briefing. “We don’t completely understand why the soil is so cohesive and tends to stick together.”
The scientists have been mixing various Earth soils in labs back home in an effort to duplicate the Mars dirt, but say they have been unable to match its consistency.
“We’re taking some very fine material like a powder and mixing it with river sand and trying to make a sticky mixture, but so far we haven’t had much success with that,” Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith said.
In heating the Martian soil in the lander’s ovens, the team hopes to discover whether it holds ice, determine if water flowed through it in the past and study its mineral composition.
It will be at least a week before the first results from those tests are analyzed. Scientists say future soil samples will be sprinkled gently onto the TEGA’s ovens to avoid the clumping problem.
The primary mission of the $420 million lander, which spent 10 months journeying from Earth to Mars, is to find signs of water and conditions that could support life there.
Phoenix is expected to tap into what scientists believe is a sheet of ice just below the surface in several weeks, using a similar process.