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Radio glitch stalls Mars lander’s work

The Phoenix Mars Lander mission has hit its first snag: The radio on an orbiter that communicates with the lander has shut itself off due to an unknown problem. Despite this setback, Phoenix seems to be doing just fine.
Image: NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander, as seen from above by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
Phoenix Mars Lander looks like a blue speck on the Red Planet in this image from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. A black mark left by the impact of the spacecraft's heat shield is visible toward the bottom of the image.NASA / JPL-Caltech / UA
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A spacecraft orbiting Mars has photographed the Phoenix Mars Lander on the surface of the red planet, NASA scientists announced Tuesday.

Mission controllers also said the mission has hit its first snag, as the radio on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which communicates with Phoenix, has shut itself off due to an unknown problem. Despite this setback, Phoenix seems to be doing just fine.

"Phoenix is healthy, everything is fine," said Fuk Li, manager of the Mars Exploration Program  at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The radio shutdown prevented mission scientists from sending Phoenix its instructions for the day Tuesday morning, as well as from receiving another set of images from the lander. MRO controllers are working on the problem now and hope to have it fixed for the next scheduled link-up this evening.

If the radio fix goes well, mission scientists will start trying to move the lander's robotic arm on Wednesday. A few days later, they will likely start practicing scooping up soil, and in about a week, they may start delivering their first samples to the lander's instruments.

Phoenix landed in the north polar regions of Mars in the Vastitas Borealis plains on Sunday evening. The $420 million mission, which launched in August, plans to dig down to the rock-hard layers of water ice thought to lie under the Martian soil near the planet's north pole. It will test the soil and ice for signs that the water was once liquid, to see if it could have created a habitable zone for microbial life at some point in the past.

The color image that MRO's HiRISE camera took on Monday shows Phoenix with its fanlike solar arrays visible. The image also shows two black spots that appear to be the jettisoned heat shield and a bounce mark it may have made, as well as the lander's parachute, which appeared as a white smudge about 300 meters away from the lander.

"We're thrilled with these images," said HiRISE principal investigator Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona. HiRISE will likely take more images of the lander and the surrounding terrain throughout the mission.

Phoenix was able to send back more images Monday night, including one of its robotic arm, which showed that the biobarrier protecting during its flight had more fully deployed since the previous day. The lander also took more images of the landing site terrain, this time to the south of Phoenix. They showed a series of low hills about 5.5 miles (9 kilometers) away, which indicate clear skies on Mars.

"That means that there's not much dust in the atmosphere; it's a very clear day," said Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith, also of the University of Arizona.

Scientists have been able to more accurately pinpoint Phoenix's landing spot. The new estimate of the lander's position shows that "we really landed in the spot the scientists were looking for," said JPL Navigation Team Chief Brain Portock.

This image provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona shows a view of Martian northern polar region made by the Surface Stereo Imager Right on NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander. (AP PHoto/NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Arizona

The landing spot still looks largely devoid of rocks, which is perfect for digging, Smith said. "All of this is prime digging area," he said.

The MRO radio glitch has delayed Phoenix's schedule by a day, mission scientists said, but they noted that Phoenix has a default set of instructions it follows when it doesn't receive any new commands in the morning.

If MRO controllers are unable to fix the radio problem on Tuesday evening, commands will be sent to Phoenix on Wednesday morning via the Mars Odyssey orbiter, mission controllers said.