Space news: Snow on Mars, Hubble hiccup

Posted by Wolfgang Gruener

Washington, D.C. – NASA today said that is Phoenix Mars Lander has detected snow falling from Martian clouds and found more details about soil data that are believed to hint to a liquid past. The organization also plans to update journalists on a “significant anomaly” affecting its Hubble Space Telescope, which will delay next month's space shuttle Atlantis' Hubble servicing mission.

The “anomaly”, which occurred last weekend showed up in Hubble's Control Unit/Science Data Formatter, means that Side A of the control unit no longer supports the transfer of science data to the ground. NASA plans to transition to the redundant Side B, which should restore full functionality to the science instruments and operations, the organization hopes.

The actual transition is a rather difficult task that requires five other modules to be switched as well. And there are questions how the B-sides of these modules will work: They were last activated during ground tests about 20 years ago. According to NASA, the transition has begun and the reconfiguration process is planned for later this week.  

The organization said that fixing the problem will delay next month's space shuttle Atlantis' Hubble servicing mission.

In more positive news, NASA said that its Phoenix Mars Lander has detected snow falling from Martian clouds and that further soil test experiments suggested and interaction between minerals and liquid water - processes that occur on Earth and may indicate a critical element to enable life as we know it.

While evidence for snow was apparently found, NASA said that the snow was detected in clouds, which were about 2.5 miles above the spacecraft's landing site. However, the snow vaporized before it reached the ground.
 
Soil test experiments provided new clues that there may be calcium carbonate, the main composition of chalk, and particles that could be clay. Most carbonates and clays on Earth form only in the presence of liquid water, NASA scientists said. The evidence for calcium carbonate in soil samples from trenches dug by the Phoenix robotic arm comes from two laboratory instruments called the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer, or TEGA, and the wet chemistry laboratory of the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer, or MECA.

The Phoenix mission is now in its fifth month and has already exceeded its planned stay of three months. NASA said that the Mars was able to harvest lots of energy in the first three months since the sun never went below the horizon at its landing site. At this time, the sun is gone for more than four hours each night and the output from the solar panels is dropping each week. Barry Goldstein, JPL Phoenix project manager, expects that “there won't be enough energy to keep using the robotic arm” before the end of October. Before the power supply is completely gone, the Phoenix team said it will attempt to activate a microphone on the lander to possibly capture sounds on Mars.