The UHF radio on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter satellite shut down on Tuesday, blocking communications between mission controllers and the newly arrived spacecraft. In a statement posted to the Web site of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration late on Tuesday, the balky orbiter “successfully received information from the Phoenix lander and relayed the information to Earth. The relayed transmission included images and other data collected by Phoenix during the mission’s second day after landing on Mars.”
The cause of the glitch is undetermined, according to the NASA statement. During the radio silence, the lander carried out instructions that had been sent on Monday.
In a press conference on Tuesday, mission officials displayed startlingly clear photos taken by the orbiter of the lander on the Martian surface, its solar panels shining a brilliant bluish against the red soil. Other images showed the heat shield and parachute, along with the mark they
made after crashing into the soil. A photograph from the lander showed the parachute and shield in the distance.
The lander’s Canadian-made weather monitoring station is also up and running, and in the Tuesday press conference included a slide of a mock weather report that showed the skies “sunny and clear,” with dust storm activity to the west and temperatures that ranged from minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit to minus 112 degrees.
Another image from the craft displayed a DVD that bears the names of 250,000 supporters of the project, along with a collection of books on the theme of Mars and a message, “Astronauts, please take this DVD with you,” said Peter Smith, principal investigator for the lander, from the University of Arizona. It won’t happen soon, he admitted: “Maybe in the next century, we hope, maybe 5,000 years from now, maybe 100,000 years from now. But some day, somebody will come and take that DVD and be able to read the books in our little library.”
Mission officials said that they expected to begin unlimbering the robotic arm today, and to begin digging in the soil within days. The shoveling craft will search for ice under the surface and cook soil in a special oven designed to determine the chemical composition of the sampled materials. Scientists hope to find the kinds of organic compounds that would suggest that life has existed, or could exist, on Mars. – nyt