Analyzing The Soil on Mars


I haven’t been reporting it, mostly because I think the news of difficulties on Mars may protend something much more important. But yes, there have been substantial delays (and some confusion) about the soil sample taken by Phoenix on Mars. Four Martian days ago (Sol is the preferred term for a Martian Day) soil was dumped on the TEGA instrument, into one of its several ovens, where the soil was to be cooked, bent, folded, spindled and otherwise mutilated until it gave up its secrets.

Bad news – sensors in the oven indicated that the soil never got inside. Seems that the soil was much more “clumpy” than anyone expected, and the clumps were not getting through the wire mesh screen that was put there specifically to keep large clumps out. A little shaking was expected to get the soil to fall through.

Four days of shaking, and still no baking (oh, forgive me, Shakespeare).

But today, on Sol 17, after the seventh (and I hear, last) attempt, the TEGA has reported officially that the oven is full.

The team had all but given up hope that this method would be successful and were surprised when the shaking sequence ended early. Worry that something could be wrong quickly evaporated as they realized that Phoenix had terminated the shaking correctly after sensing that the oven was full. The news brought cheers and a standing ovation for Dr. Bill Boynton the TEGA lead scientist when he gave a surprise announcement at a team meeting this morning.

The real work, the analysis, begins in two Sols. Since the soil is already known to be different than the fabled “top minds at NASA” had anticipated, my advice to the entire team is Expect the Unexpected. Put that on your bumper and stick it.

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