NASA lander in OK shape, photo caught Mars landing - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

NASA lander in OK shape, photo caught Mars landing

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) - Fresh images sent back by NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander from the Martian northern polar region showed most of its science instruments were in good shape, mission scientists said.

The one snag on the lander occurred when the protective sheath around the trench-digging robotic arm failed to unwrap all the way after touchdown and now covers the arm's elbow joint.

Deputy project scientist Deborah Bass of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said scientists still planned to move the arm Tuesday, but it could take an extra day to fully stretch it.

"I would say this is an inconvenience," Bass said Monday.

Since landing on Mars on Sunday, Phoenix has delighted scientists with the first-ever peek of the planet's unexplored northern latitudes. The terrain where Phoenix settled is relatively flat with polygon-shaped patterns in the ground likely caused by the expansion and contraction of underground ice.

Phoenix will dig into the the soil using its 8-foot-long arm to reach the ice believed to be buried inches to a foot deep.

The lander will study whether the site could have supported primitive life. Among the things it will look for is whether the ice melted in Mars' history and whether the soil samples contain traces of organic compounds, one of the building blocks of life.

On Monday, NASA released a black-and-white image captured during Phoenix's descent by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which had a bird's-eye view of the lander hanging from its parachute. It's the first time a spacecraft had taken an image of another craft during landing.

Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory said the camera aboard Reconnaissance Orbiter has taken many unique pictures of Mars, but "this one's really unique."

"This will be on my Top 10 list," said McEwen, who operates the orbiter's camera. "

The $420 million Phoenix mission is led by University of Arizona, Tucson and managed by JPL. Unlike the twin rovers, which have been operating near the Martian equator since 2004, Phoenix has a limited lifetime. Winter will set in later this year at its landing site and likely will cover the lander with frost.


(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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