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NASA scientists plan to test out the process of shaving and collecting ice on the Phoenix, the Mars lander.  The first test was conducted on July 15.  The scrapings are being taken from a 5-centimeter deep hole informally known as Snow White.

A Color Photograph of “Snow White”

 The ice scrapings will be placed into a tiny oven in the lander’s Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer, which heats up samples of Martian dirt and analyzes the vapors they give off.  Mission team members hope that  analysis of the ice samples will show that they are rich in water ice, which aids the argument that there still may be life on the red planet.  The mission is not to detect microbes, but to discover if the environment is suitable for them; water is a natural necessity.

The sample for the TEGA instrument will also be taken from this same trench. Mission controllers hope to collect and deliver the sample quickly and early in the Martian morning to minimize the amount of ice lost to sublimation, the process of solid (ice) going directly into a gaseous phase.

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A small unmanned spacecraft built and driven by NASA named the Phoenix landed on the icy northern pole of Mars at 4:53 PDT yesterday.  This is the first time that a spacecraft has landed on one of the poles.  This touchdown was particularly stressful as there were no cushioned landing gear on the craft unlike the previous Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers.

An Illustration of the Phoenix Landing

The craft, pulled by Mars’ gravity, screamed through space at somewhere around 12,700 mph before it hit the  atmosphere, allowing it to deploy a parachute to land safely on the ground.  Thus, the Phoenix ended its 10-month, 423 million-mile flight. 

NASA’s scientists discovered liquid water underneath the ice of the poles in 2002.  This mission was to sample the water and find out if life could be present in it.  NASA attempted a landing on Mars’ southern pole in 1999, but a problem (scientific calculations of distance are done with the metric meter, not feet NASA!) during the descent ended the mission with a bang.  The later Spirit and Opportunity rovers explored Mars’ equatorial region for signs of water existing in the past.  The Phoenix was built from parts of smashed up polar spacecraft.  Hopefully, we will finally find out if little green men (or bacterial life) can exist on Mars.

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