The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said two practice rounds of digging and dumping soil at Phoenix's Martian arctic landing site this week gave scientists confidence to begin using Phoenix's robotic arm to deliver soil samples to instruments on the lander's deck.
Exactly when those samples will be collected was undetermined because of a malfunction on NASA's Odyssey orbiter. Odyssey, which relays Phoenix data to and from Earth, entered a "safe mode" Wednesday, preventing instructions from reaching the lander. Odyssey mission managers were trying to determine what triggered that event.
The two practice digs have already enticed scientists about some bright material in the soil just beneath the surface.
"We've had an impassioned discussion of whether that may be salts or ice or some other material even more exotic," said Phoenix Principal Investigator Peter Smith at the University of Arizona, who noted concentrations of salts can be indicators of formerly wet conditions.
Phoenix is the first mission to dig into Mars with a robotic arm since the Viking landers during the 1970s.
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