NASA: With Martian ice discovered, major tests beginning

Programmers also building patch to fix software bug that caused loss of some photos

After a technical glitch and the loss of data earlier this week, NASA engineers and scientists are finally finding what they'd hoped to discover in the latest Mars mission -- signs of elements that could support life.

Dice-size pieces of whitish matter dug up in a trench on the Martian north pole appears to be ice, according to Ray Arvidson, a co-investigator for Mars Lander's robotic arm team and a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Dug up in a 7-to-8-cm-deep trench by the Lander's robotic arm, the material disappeared after being exposed to sunlight, leading scientists to believe it was ice that simply melted.

The chunks were left at the bottom of a trench that NASA engineers have dubbed "Dodo-Goldilocks" on June 15, during the 20th Martian day since landing. Several chunks were gone when the Phoenix Lander examined the trench about four days later. The material, which is brighter than the soil around it, looks white or even blue under color enhancements.

And ice -- or rather water -- is exactly what scientists were hoping to find on Mars.

"This week has been like a month's worth of adrenalin," said Arvidson. "If they're ice deposits, they should disappear because water ice is not stable on the surface of Mars at that latitude.... And it's gone. It's disappeared. As soon as the sun hit that material, it disappeared. It's ice. This is why we went, so it's pretty exciting."

Arvidson said while they were waiting to see how the whitish chunks would respond to being left out in the sun, they instructed the robotic arm on the Lander to dig other trenches. During one of the digs, the robotic arm faulted out, stopping sampling in its tracks. Arvidson explained that the robot hit a very hard material, and after the third time, it automatically stopped work on the job. "It's pretty smart in terms of software," he added. "If the motors on three joints exceed a certain limit, the arm thinks, 'This is too much for me. I'm going to stop and just wait for new instructions.'"

The professor noted that parts of that last trench are white or blue in appearance. "In this case, we think we actually hit pore ice, which is ice intermixed with the pores of the soil," said Arvidson. "It's exactly what we expect. About five centimeters down, we predicted the ice would start. The pores of the soil would be filled with ice. We can scrape it and rasp it. We'll unfold our full arsenal of ice-attack tools."

That means scientists have found ice in two different trenches -- finds that Arvidson called "spectacularly good".

"If we can confirm that there is water or ice there, it will tell us there is a potential for life," said Matthew Robinson, the robotic arm flight software engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Water is one of the main elements of life. It goes back to the fundamental question of 'Are we alone out there?' Is there life there even in a microscopic form? Or is there the possibility that there used to be life?

"If microscopic life exists elsewhere, other life could exist elsewhere," he added.

Now NASA's scientists are getting ready to launch a major series of tests. The next step is for programmers to send code to the robotic arm that instructs it to scoop up more soil and deliver it to three different onboard analyzers -- an oven that will bake it and test the gases that are emitted, a microscopic imager that will send photos back to Earth, and a wet chemistry lab.

The Lander already has sent back initial images from the microscope of an earlier soil sample. Arvidson said it's difficult to interpret the images without considering them along with data from the other analyzers.

These successes come after a software glitch earlier this week that caused data to be lost.

Arvidson said that the Lander lost some pictures, but they can be reacquired once the software bug is fixed. He explained that the Lander has a flash drive that stores 116Mbit of data and then sends that information back to NASA. He noted that the problem doesn't lie with the hardware. Rather, it's an issue of competing priorities trying to write to the flash at the same time.

Programmers are working on a patch for the problem now.

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