Phoenix Lander Might Peek Under a Rock

Sep 22, 2008
A rock informally named "Headless," on the north side of NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander, has been selected for an attempt to slide the rock aside with the lander's robotic arm. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University

(PhysOrg.com) -- If the robotic arm on NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander can nudge a rock aside today, scientists on the Phoenix team would like to see what's underneath.

Engineers who develop commands for the robotic arm have prepared a plan to try displacing a rock on the north side of the lander. This rock, roughly the size and shape of a VHS videotape, is informally named "Headless."

"We don't know whether we can do this until we try," said Ashitey Trebi Ollennu, a robotics engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "The idea is to move the rock with minimum disturbance to the surface beneath it. You have to get under it enough to lift it as you push it and it doesn't just slip off the scoop."

The lander receives commands for the whole day in the morning, so there's no way to adjust in mid-move if the rock starts slipping. Phoenix took stereo-pair images of Headless to provide a detailed three-dimensional map of it for planning the arm's motions. On Saturday, Sept. 20, the arm enlarged a trench close to Headless. Commands sent to Phoenix Sunday evening, Sept. 21, included a sequence of arm motions for today, intended to slide the rock into the trench.

Moving rocks is not among the many tasks Phoenix's robotic arm was designed to do. If the technique works, the move would expose enough area for digging into the soil that had been beneath Headless.

"The appeal of studying what's underneath is so strong we have to give this a try," said Michael Mellon, a Phoenix science team member at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

The scientific motive is related to a hard, icy layer found beneath the surface in trenches that the robotic arm has dug near the lander. Excavating down to that hard layer underneath a rock might provide clues about processes affecting the ice.

"The rocks are darker than the material around them, and they hold heat," Mellon said. "In theory, the ice table should deflect downward under each rock. If we checked and saw this deflection, that would be evidence the ice is probably in equilibrium with the water vapor in the atmosphere."

An alternative possibility, if the icy layer were found closer to the surface under a rock, could by the rock collecting moisture from the atmosphere, with the moisture becoming part of the icy layer.

Provided by NASA

Explore further: Space sex geckos at risk as Russia loses control of satellite

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Imager sends ultra high-res photo from Mars

Oct 09, 2013

(Phys.org) —An instrument aboard NASA's Curiosity rover has sent back to scientists on Earth an ultra high-resolution image of a penny the rover carried to Mars.

Mars Icebreaker Life mission

May 16, 2013

Missions to Mars have only scratched its surface. To go deeper, scientists are proposing a spacecraft that can drill into the Red Planet to potentially find signs of life.

Engineers building hard-working mining robot

Jan 29, 2013

(Phys.org)—After decades of designing and operating robots full of scientific gear to study other worlds, NASA is working on a prototype that leaves the delicate instruments at home in exchange for a sturdy ...

Curiosity rover: No big surprise in first soil test

Dec 03, 2012

(Phys.org)—NASA's Mars Curiosity rover has used its full array of instruments to analyze Martian soil for the first time, and found a complex chemistry within the Martian soil. Water and sulfur and chlorine-containing ...

NASA rover lands on Mars (Update 4)

Aug 06, 2012

NASA has successfully landed its $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory and Curiosity rover on the surface of the Red Planet, breaking new ground in US-led exploration of an alien world.

NASA braces for 'terror' in Mars landing

Aug 02, 2012

The biggest, baddest space rover ever built for exploring an alien planet is nearing its August 6 landing on Mars, and the US space agency is anxious for success despite huge risks.

Recommended for you

Video: A dizzying view of the Earth from space

3 hours ago

We've got vertigo watching this video, but in a good way! This is a sped-up view of Earth from the International Space Station from the Cupola, a wraparound window that is usually used for cargo ship berthings ...

NEOWISE spots a comet that looked like an asteroid

3 hours ago

Comet C/2013 UQ4 (Catalina) has been observed by NASA's Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) spacecraft just one day after passing through its closest approach to the sun. The comet ...

What the UK Space Agency can teach Australia

3 hours ago

Australia has had an active civil space program since 1947 but has much to learn if it is to capture a bigger share of growing billion dollar global space industry. ...

Discover the "X-factor" of NASA's Webb telescope

3 hours ago

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope and Chandra X-ray observatory have something in common: a huge test chamber used to simulate the hazards of space and the distant glow of starlight. Viewers can learn about ...

User comments : 4

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Modernmystic
3.8 / 5 (5) Sep 22, 2008
This sounds kinda cool except when you realize that if NASA hadn't squandered the last 40 years playing patty cake in LEO with the shuttles and the overpriced erector set it's entirely possible we could have actual PEOPLE there now flipping rocks over all day long...
russellharper
5 / 5 (3) Sep 23, 2008
My guess is that they'll find dirt under the rock. I'm not a scientist though.
gmurphy
5 / 5 (1) Sep 23, 2008
I'd like to see a few citations proving that dirt has been found under rocks before
TrustTheONE
5 / 5 (1) Sep 23, 2008
They espect a Nobel for this????