Phoenix Suffers Unknown Problem with Sample Analysis Oven

by Ian O'Neill on June 7, 2008

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Mars dirt doesn\'t make it to the oven for testing (NASA/UA)
The first sample for scientific analysis dug from the surface of the Mars has failed to make it to the onboard oven used to test for organic compounds and water. Mission scientists have been overviewing a picture taken by the lander after Phoenix’s 8-foot long robotic arm dropped the sample on-target, but a sensor inside the chamber has reported seeing nothing falling into the oven. The regolith sample can be clearly seen scattered over the oven doors (pictured), and the vibration plate appears to be functioning. Mission control is currently trying to understand what went wrong, so sample analysis has been postponed, possibly for a few days…

Everything was looking fine as the robotic arm reached out and dug into the Martian top layer of regolith on Sol 11 (June 5th) of the Phoenix Mars Mission. The Martian dirt was excavated from a little patch known as “Baby Bear” and then lifted above the open doors of the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer (TEGA – a hi-tech oven used to bake the samples and analyze the gases emitted). The robotic arm then released the sample on to the vibrator above the open TEGA hatch. The vibrating plate, used to shake the sample into the oven chamber, was registered as working as it should. It all seemed fine, even the picture taken of the dropped regolith on the top deck of Phoenix fell in the right place. Unfortunately, the electronic “eye” inside the chamber did not detect any falling grains of dirt.

University of Arizona mission scientists are understandably concerned about this complication. “We think everything is working correctly, although we don’t really know for sure,” William Boynton, UA Tucson researcher who is overlooking the oven experiments, said in a news briefing today (Saturday). “We’re a little bit concerned about this but we have some other things to check out.

If the regolith was dropped in the right place, and the vibrating plate appears to be working as it should, why have no particles been registered as entering the open chamber? The problem could lie in the screen at the top of the TEGA. The screen will only allow small particles into the chamber for analysis. If the regolith is too compacted, or is composed of larger-than-expected particles, none may be able to enter the oven. On the other hand, the instrument readings from the vibrator are in fact wrong, meaning it is not working and particles are not being fed into the chamber.

But do not be alarmed. If the oven is broken, Phoenix has come prepared. This oven is one of eight on board, so whilst scientists try to understand the problem, at least they know they have another seven ovens to take over the mission’s primary objectives. In the mean time, mission control will send commands to the lander to analyse the area it excavated with its robotic arm and cameras.

Source: Associated Press

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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

Claude Miller June 7, 2008 at 7:48 PM

The first sample for scientific analysis dug from the surface of the Mars was the Viking spacecraft.

Brian Sheen June 7, 2008 at 11:46 PM

Not really surprised that Phoenix has a sieving problem To be sure it is not easy to see what exactly is going on.

However having spent many years sieving clay soil samples to 50 micron and below for English China Clays Research I am aware of difficulties.

If there is any salt present then it will stick the soil together, a similar effect occurs if water is present ie ice that has melted when brought to the surface.

joe June 8, 2008 at 4:36 AM

so maybe the sensor failed. Don’t tell me they can’t turn on the oven to see if they get results.

Krazikemist June 8, 2008 at 12:16 PM

to PHWilson;

” . .. bombarded with positive electrons. ” Q: Where do POSITIVE electrons come from?

neoguru June 8, 2008 at 5:18 AM

Ouch! It’s obvious that the samples have a static charge – you can clearly see dust clinging to the scoop tenaciously. “Static cling” could easily clog a fine filter, not allowing the sample to pass thru the sieve, especially with lower gravity. Dispensing the sample with a vibrator would tend to increase a static charge. It could be a serious and unforseen problem.

PHWilson June 8, 2008 at 8:07 AM

Maybe the arm can pass an anti-static cloth over the filter. Oh noooo – who forgot to pack the Snuggle dryer sheets!

PHWilson June 8, 2008 at 8:12 AM

Seriously though, if the solar batteries can store enough charge, this experiment might be best done during the night phase when Mars is not so directly bombarded with positive electrons. Just a thought.

Chuck Lam June 9, 2008 at 6:40 AM

Hmm . . . men . . . boys . . . price of toys! Here is a question that begs an answer.
Who will benefit most and why from this expensive effort?

Marsbug June 9, 2008 at 6:52 AM

I think that question has been done to death on the forum and other places. Suffice to say a great many people place space exploration against other national efforts like the middle east wars, compare prices and say: at least space exploration isn’t killing and maiming thousands and costs a tiny fraction as much, and is something a great many take a lot of pride in.

Chuck Lam June 9, 2008 at 3:20 PM

I suspect the monies spent on the Mars folly would produce far more benefit worldwide if invested in, let’s say, paying more qualified people to manage America’s international relations. Thus the killing and maiming in the middle east just might be mitigated a bit and we could all be proud of something truly worthwhile. There is too much to be accomplished here on earth then to be fooling around wasting brain-power and resources on determining if there is water or microbes on Mars. We are becoming dangerously top-heavy with stupidity.

Ralph Rewes June 9, 2008 at 6:02 PM

Whatever happen to Phoenix taking pictures? And then NASA does not want people to come up with coverup theories!!

David S June 9, 2008 at 9:35 PM

“Q: Where do POSITIVE electrons come from?”

Positrons! yay, antimater!

I think the real problem is the regolith is dark mater! ;)

Kevin M. June 9, 2008 at 10:10 PM

“There is too much to be accomplished here on earth then to be fooling around wasting brain-power and resources on determining if there is water or microbes on Mars. ”

We will never solve the social or economic problems on Earth, and determining if there is life on Mars is exactly what our brain-power and resources are good for. Looking to new horizons is what gives us the hope and ambition to go forward, despite the inevitable suffering and evil of social disasters in this world. Therefore, Pheonix is precisely the solution to the problems of Earth.

All this exploration of space is not really a technical achievement at all, it is really the spiritual search and journey of man to the inside of himself, to know himself better. Machines, like the entire material world, are merely the vehicle for achieving what are really spiritual ends.

Phoenix promises a major step torwards the extremely significant goal of finding life, a much bigger “spiritual” breakthrough even than landing on the moon, and we must always pay some steep price in blood, sweat and treasure for the hubris of overcoming the limitations of nature. The greater the reward, the higher the price we must pay to reach it. God is with us in all these endeavors, he does not hold them in contempt. But nature must be paid its pound of flesh.

There may be supposed “laws of nature”, but here is a “law of the spirit” for you: the machines will always balk on us if we are not spiritually ready for the outcome, or have not yet paid the human price worth of the reward. It does not matter if the machines are in perfect working order, they will not function if they are sent in the wrong spirit, or ahead of their time.

Right now, we must sweat and labor a little more yet with Phoenix, this is no time to abandon it, in its finest hour, you dont abandon friends in their time of crisis. What Phoenix is after is the profoundest thing man can right now attempt to accomplish, not an “earthly” conquest of power, gold or territory, but the most purely spiritual thing of all: knowledge, both self-knowledge and the knowledge of the vast presence and beauty of all the other life, and lives, in the universe.

The truth IS out there, in spades, and it will always be precisely our job to find it.

Marsbug June 10, 2008 at 1:38 AM

The american international affairs budget for 2007 was 36 billion dollars. NASA’s total budget for 2008 was 17.6 billion, of which only 4.4 billion was allocated to science. Mars missions are only a small subset of the total science budget. Phoenix cost around 400 million dollars, spread across four or five years at least. So no I don’t see how cancelling mars exploration will make the slightest difference to international relations.
And I agree with many of Kevin M’s points: No amount of money can buy us peace, and having adventures like these is part of what makes me glad to wake up in the morning

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