Friday, June 6, 2008

Mars Lander is the New Iron Chef

Those are some exotic easy bake ovens Phoenix lander has as part of its attributes. Our first lander Martian Iron Chef recipe. First, scrape away some loose rusty colored dirt. Scoop up the exposed hard white second layer. Next, pre-heat at1000° F to bake or broil at over 1800ºF frozen dirt currently wearing a mysterious white frosting crust that resembles a Martian microwavable TV dinner that sat for too long, then spread and test soil flambée sample for microbes and water content. All this for less than a $500 million dollar investment with a cooking collaboration of defense contractors, stellar academic institutions and a fusion of space agencies.
Just two weeks, cough 11 sols, into its historic role with a practice run, a stumble and waving the Mars Lander's seven foot (2.35 meter) titanium robotic arm around, Phoenix fires up its internal eight ovens for some real science. A key discovery is if the suspected permafrost in Mar's north polar region has the same behaviors or any special properties similar to Earth. Scientists operating the lander's joystick will gather two more samples for chemical analysis and to use the special microscope to discover organic compounds found in Mars' Special Soil Sauce.

It now lies inside the scoop, poised over an instrument called the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer, or TEGA, where it will be dumped and sealed in for several days of analysis, the scientist said.

"The first step is to dry water out of the sample and find out what percentage of water there is... The test should tell very quickly," said Smith.

The TEGA will heat up the sample gradually to 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,832 Farenheit).

"I would guess by the end of next week we will be in a pretty good position to tell you our first assessment of this soil, and if we are lucky enough to get some white material in there, to figure out what it is too," Smith said. (Image NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Max Planck Institute)

We will find out next week if the scooper, hermetic sealing and dirt frying worked once the dirt clumps, after being baked like brownies, is dumped out for closer examination. Can you imagine that stunning news? The scientific debate rages as to whether the ice evaporated after sun exposure going through sublimination which makes it a gas a not a liquid versus curmudgeonly others who are betting on the white crusty stuff just being salt. But then salt is necessary for life and is the residue of some sort of interaction between water and the dirt.

Scientists, however, want to do further tests on particles they are certain come from the planet's surface to rule out contamination from the lander before drawing conclusions about the Martian soil.

One of the tiny particles examined was very pale, but Mr Pike said it was almost certainly not a sample of the ice scientists are confident lies beneath the northern arctic plains where the lander touched down.

He said it was more likely a mineral and "could be a salt-like deposit or it could be quartz" as that amount of ice would have "sublimed" and turned into a gas before it could be photographed.

But that did not suggest ice was not present, he added, as ice and mineral deposits were frequently found together.

Of course, the existence of water or past water makes the penultimate mission seem closer as colonization of any planet or moon is dependent on solar energy and water. But this first mission only has 80 days/sols left to cook up some wondrous gourmet science discoveries.

Behavioral scientist and management psychologist, Phillip Harris, boldly describes reasons and resources that beckon from space for settlements. His 45th book is Space Enterprise: Living and Working Offworld in the 21st Century. This 400 page paperback is not available until August of this year.

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