In The Field

Phoenix landing: One day delay

The big (and first bad) news coming out of the press conference this morning is that the UHF radio link on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was shut down before it sent Phoenix its workday instructions for sol two on Mars. That means that all of the lander’s planned activities for today — tentative first motions of the robotic arm, the filling in of panoramic blank spots – will be delayed by a day.

Jet Propulsion Lab managers seemed confident it was just a temporary set back. JPL Mars Exploration Program manager Fuk Li said the radio shut down was triggered by a “transient event,” perhaps something like a blast of cosmic ray particles. In those situations, MRO pre-emptively shuts the instrument down as a safety precaution. Engineers are trying to turn it back on right now.

If the problem persists, mission managers can switch to the UHF radio on Mars Odyssey (which is going to be used for half of the uplinks and downlinks anyway). There’s also a backup UHF radio on MRO.

But this is still a minor setback right when the scientists wanted to charge out of the gate. Li said MRO had turned on its radio roughly 100 times for practice without experiencing any problems. Ed Sedivy, Phoenix program manager at Lockheed Martin, said, “All this is is a one day hiccup for Peter,” he said.

Phoenix PI Peter Smith still had plenty to be excited about in the first pictures, retrieved last night, of the workspace – the area within digging reach of the robotic arm. “There’s just a wonderful buffet of opportunities in front of us,” he said.

His team has spied a trough in one corner of the field of view, which he says is one of the depressions forming the boundary between the polygons that represent expansion and contraction cycles of the ice below. Smith wants to dig a trench across the trough next week, but first has to calibrate the robotic arm with practice motions and tentative first touches of the soil. There will be no digging in the troughs for now. “Those were designated National Parks last night,” Smith said.

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