Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Phoenix Digs Bigfoot-like Footprint over Ice (or Salt) on Mars


The robotic arm with a backhoe dug into the surface to retrieve samples leaving a footprint behind
NASA's Phoenix lander may have already hit pay dirt with its first scoop of Martian soil.

Phoenix touched down in Mars's north polar region on 26 May and quickly started beaming back images of its surroundings.

The $420-million spacecraft has now gouged out its first scoopful of Martian dirt from an area informally known as the Knave of Hearts, using its 2.3-metre robotic arm.

Ice or salt?

"The material is crushable," said Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, US, co-investigator for Phoenix's robotic arm, at a press conference on Monday. "It's sand with a fair amount of soil and dust."

The practice scoop was emptied onto a designated dump area nearby, but not before a camera snapped images revealing mysterious white streaks in the reddish dirt. The bright streaks appear in both the excavated soil and in the hole from which it came.

"That bright material might be ice or salt," Arvidson said. "We're eager to do testing of the next three surface samples [to be] collected nearby to learn more about it."

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