U.S. Water News Online
TUCSON, Ariz. —The Phoenix Mars Lander has photographed what scientists believe may be a smooth table of ice just under the craft's belly.
Scientists believe the lander's powerful thrusters blew away the surface soil and exposed the ice when the craft landed on May 25.
The finding could be good news for the mission because it may mean ice is close to the surface and easy for the lander's robotic arm to reach.
The ice is important because it may have helped preserve the planet's geological history, including organic material or other signs of life.
"This is really a gleeful day for us," said lead scientist Peter Smith of the University of Arizona.
Smith had worried that ice could be as much as 30 to 40 centimeters beneath the surface and therefore more difficult to reach. But the recent photo leads scientists to believe ice could be as little as 5 to 10 centimeters below the surface.
The Phoenix craft is designed to dig into the Martian polar region to analyze the history of water. A nearly 8-foot arm will deliver samples of soil and ice to scientific instruments onboard which will examine them for signs of organic materials, the building blocks of life. The lander isn't sophisticated enough to actually detect life, but if the craft finds signs of a habitable environment, future missions could return to answer the life question.
Scientists nicknamed the smooth icy patch under the lander "Holy Cow," because it was the first phrase uttered when a scientist saw the photo for the first time.
The patch under the lander can't be reached by the robotic arm, but Smith expects to start digging in other locations within days.
On Friday, scientists reported a short in the onboard scientific oven, which is critical to examining whether organic material is present. On Saturday, Smith was optimistic the oven would still operate.
The Phoenix lander's mission is designed to last three months, although the lander could operate into fall or early winter depending on how much sunlight it receives.
The craft relies on solar panels to recharge its batteries, and eventually the scarce winter sun will fail to generate enough power to keep Phoenix operating.
The mission is being led by the University of Arizona and managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
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