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Mars lander begins its arm exercises

Scientists began releasing the robotic arm on NASA’s new Mars spacecraft on Wednesday, one day late because of a radio problem.
Image: Surface of Mars
This image shows the American flag and a mini-DVD on the Phoenix's deck, which is about 3 feet above the Martian surface. The mini-DVD from the Planetary Society contains a message to future Martian explorers, science fiction stories and art inspired by the Red Planet, and the names of more than a quarter million earthlings.NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Arizona via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Scientists began releasing the robotic arm on NASA’s new Mars spacecraft on Wednesday, one day late because of a radio problem.

The Phoenix lander, which arrived on Mars on Sunday, is in excellent shape, said project manager Barry Goldstein. He said the communications glitch was only a blip in the robot’s three-month exploration of the planet’s northern arctic region.

The outage occurred Tuesday in one of two NASA satellites circling Mars when a radio shut off before it could relay commands to the lander to get the 8-foot arm moving, Goldstein said.

The robotic arm was folded on the lander’s science deck to protect it from the vibrations of the launch and landing. Before Phoenix can flex its arm, it must rotate its wrist to release the latches on its forearm and elbow and “move it out in a staircase fashion” to remove its protective sleeve, said robotic arm manager Bob Bonitz of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

While engineers worked on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's communications glitch, mission managers used NASA's other orbiter, Mars Odyssey, to send commands to the lander on Wednesday — beginning the two-day process of limbering up the arm.

Goldstein said he hoped photos of the partially unfurled arm would be available Thursday.

Phoenix’s arm will eventually dig into the soil surrounding it, seeking ice believed to be within inches to a foot below the surface. It’s part of the effort to study whether the site could have supported primitive life.

The robotic arm has four joints in all — two at the shoulder to allow it to move side to side as well as up and down, an elbow and a wrist, which allows it to move its crucial scoop and digging device.

Phoenix has delighted scientists with the first-ever peek of the planet’s northern arctic region since its landing Sunday onto relatively flat terrain containing few rocks. Twin rovers have been operating near the Martian equator since 2004.

Texas A&M University’s Mark Lemmon, who is in charge of the lander’s camera, said scientists are still investigating geometric patterns in the surface likely caused by the expansion and contraction of underground ice. Some areas immediately surrounding the lander would be designated a no-digging “natural preserve,” Lemmon said.

A few features on nearby terrain have been given such nicknames as Humpty Dumpty and Sleepy Hollow, he said. NASA reported that a panorama of the lander's surroundings, built up from multiple images, was about one-third complete as of Wednesday.

Weather information gathered by the mission's Canadian Space Agency team showed temperatures ranged between minus 22 degrees and minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit (-30 to -80 degrees Celsius). Smith said those temperatures were "milder than they could be in other places."

The $420 million mission is led by University of Arizona, Tucson, and managed by JPL.

This report was supplemented by