back to article Phoenix chokes on 'clumpy' Martian soil

NASA's Phoenix Mars lander has hit a glitch in its first attempt to sample Martian soil - the Red Planet's surface may have proved too "clumpy" for one oven in the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer (TEGA). Phoenix recently scooped up a cup-sized sample of material for the "high-temperature furnace and mass spectrometer" TEGA, …


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  1. The Prevaricator

    *waves white flag*

    I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate our martian overlords in their victory over the 1 mm gauze. They clearly are far too technologically advanced for our feeble minds. We should give up. Give up immediately.

  2. Robert Harrison


    What the NASA scientists fail to realise is that the Martian Lander has become sentient! That clump of jammed martian mud is currently being baked and shaped into a replica Martian lander that will duplicate yet another lander and so on and so on. Soon after several million cycles, we really will have an Invasion from Mars, of our own creation (much like the Cylons).

    The only course of action is to run for the hills... at least until the invading sentient Martian NASA Lander fleet level the planet that is.

  3. dervheid
    Thumb Down


    lack of foresight there!

    Who'd have thought that all that effort could be fucked over by a couple of 'lumps'.

    They should be ashamed to call themselves engineers.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Important tool missing

    Instead of sending 8 ovens it sounds like they should've flown 7 ovens and a coffee grinder.

  5. Anonymous Coward

    Just need to wait for the water to evaporate.

    Mine's the one with the squirty flower lapel...

  6. H5N1

    Why don't they spend...

    the money that they put into this flimsy shit into a fatter rocket and send a remote control bobcat to Mars.

    I mean, really, WTF? Everything they send out there ends up breaking down because it's too complicated to perform the task required.

    Send the bobcat and a fat ass oven with only a couple of sensors in it, then it can shovel that shit all day every day and not break down. Who's seen a bobcat out of action? Eh?

    Penguin because all these operations end up hobbling around like them.

  7. dervheid

    @ Just need to wait for the water to evaporate.

    At the risk of "stating the bloody obvious", that'd be defeating the purpose of the experiment!

    Unless you were trying to be ironic, of course. which I'm sure you were.

    Weren't you?

  8. richard

    BigTrack would have done better..

    just a bit of programming with his little wheeled trolley on the back and Bigtrack would have shovelled up HUGE lumps of red clay and brought them back to the NASA kitchen!

    And he would have avoided the alien dog AND martian granny who's asleep after a whopping great martian dinner!

    Don't even begin to think what 'Simon Says' would have done on this mission...

  9. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

    Re: Why don't they spend...

    Why don't they spend even more money and send a proper manned mission there?

    All these "problems" arising during the robotic adventures on-the-cheap are easily solved by Derek the Astronaut with a shovel, sledgehammer and a portable lab in an inflatable tent.

    OK, it will cost MUCH more to organise but the benefits will be HUGE. For once, there will be answers coming back rather than the "maybe's" and "whatif's" that the robotic missions return and which are hailed as "tremendous breakthroughs" while in reality being a total waste of time and money.

  10. Charles Silver badge


    Two reasons.

    One, the rockets that launch these things to Mars can only lift so much at a time. Make the payload too heavy and the launch could catastrophically backfire, much like you see in those stock films of early rocket tests. Many people don't realize just how lightweight these probes actually are.

    Two, the Martian atmosphere is much thinner than the Terran one. This has an adverse effect when it comes to radiation. A good chunk of the rovers involves the Martian version of sunblock.

  11. Philip Badham


    And they call themselves "engineers"? Any construction worker could tell them that a 1 mm screen will pass absolutely nothing without a good shaking. Jeepers you can't even sieve flour without a shake or two or a dozen. They go looking for water, expect to find it and then find out the ground is kinda muddy. Whooda thunk it? If I tried to get anything in my back yard through a 1 mm sieve without a whole bunch of trouble I could be certified insane. Nasa Shmasha. They should try inventing something more on their level, like a high tech wheel!

  12. Wonderkid

    Don't forget the human element...

    Apollo 13 proved that manned missions can innovate themselves out of trouble - and that was the 1960s! While accidents have taken their toll on humans, very few serious technical problems (including Hubble) were solved simply with a software update or wiggling something remotely and hoping for the best. We could easily have sent a manned mission to Mars by now but we've been so pre-occupied with looking for, fighting for and burning oil we're 20 years out of sync with where we should be - it's 2008 for goodness sake! Why can't mankind take a more ambitious attitude to the future? From the UK perspective, how can a generation of (British) idiots bought up on a life of celeb and reality TV and maintaining their Facebook profiles ever gain the wisdom and intellect to become interested in science anyway? We're a bit screwed if you ask me! It's a bit hot here in sunny but silly England, so excuse the random nature of this posting, but I saw all this coming years ago and if such a lack of forethought has just cost NASA $400m, it is not something to be overlooked. We have dumbed ourselves down into obsolescence. Talk about the singularity! Oh dear.

  13. GoatBoy

    send ants to break that shit down

    my lawn says yes

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Calm down calm down

    There's a good reason why the screen is 1mm wide - this matches the TEGA sample chamber. Sending stuff to Mars is expensive, hence systems are miniaturised to the nth degree.

  15. StopthePropaganda

    this is why you send HUMANS

    a single human can adapt to changing mission criteria, varying terrain, malfunctioning devices and unforseen conditions. A robot can be designed to handle a few possibilities-but look at the hassle just to do a soil scoop. A human could dump the thing and start over, replace the filter, remove the filter if necessary, scoop elsewhere, or cut the bloody doors off the oven entrance-all within a few hours, basing it on decisions made on-the-spot using mission protocols as a decision making guide.

    A human could have checked the white patch underneath and said "hmm, it could be ice" and checked it without a major mission hassle. there's no "well, we can't check because the arm is designed two inches too short so we'll have to send another probe" nonsense.

    As it stands now, any robotic probe can only perform limited tests based on engineering, financial and political compromises. Give a human a simple miner's pick and a microscope and he can milk as much science as any number of probes with scoopers and arms. Give him a decent chemistry set and you can get even more science. Plus, whenever a test gives off intriguing results, a human can then perform experiments along a different line of inquiry-even after Phoenix gets it's ovens working, if there's different results from different digs, the mission has to choose which ones it will check, and reject the rest-nor can it have the luxury to confirm results if something exotic, or totally unexpected occurs.

    And the "totally unexpected" is the thing that no previous or currently designed probe or rover can deal with.

  16. Anonymous Coward

    Re: "Unless you were trying to be ironic"


    This is The Register.

    Relax, have some fun.

    Maybe I should have used this icon instead...

  17. Damon Hastings

    Chill out people -- this is all going according to plan

    The media is reporting this as if it were a screwup -- as if NASA has been somehow "thwarted" by the soil. But this is just a minor hiccup, the sort of thing you expect and plan for. In fact, NASA has several possible contingency plans and they're just taking a few days to debate which plan is best based on the data they have received from Phoenix so far. Just be patient, people. These missions always move glacially by most humans' fast-paced standards. But seriously, even the Mars rovers would often sit idle for days on end while engineers on Earth debated whether to make a right turn or left turn! It's all done super-cautiously, which is why the rovers have lasted this long. If NASA were to get impatient and screw up the equipment, it's not like they could send up a repairman (well, not within the next 20 years at least.)

  18. Bounty

    @ the very calm AC,

    then why did they use a big ass shovel?

    why not just use a 1mm shovel then, or at least put a syringe on it somewhere. Surely they have a mock up rover and tried digging a hole in frozen clay with it?

  19. Seán

    Waste of time

    Lets go to Mars to find water with a machine which can only handle dry sand and dust and is completely useless with mud. Another masterpiece of committee driven buck passing non planning.

  20. sconzey
    Thumb Up

    Kudos to NASA

    Whether you like them or no, NASA do hire some very bloody smart people and -- barring the manned mission proposal which I understand NASA is opposed to for political rather than scientific reasons -- I doubt you guys have come up with anything they've not thought of before.

  21. herman Silver badge

    Water is wet...

    This is amazing. They are looking for water and they are surprized when they find that water + soil == clods?

    I think the design engineers should have their preschool certificates revoked.

  22. Richard Scratcher

    Sod's law

    These sod busting engineers obviously did not apply Sod's Law to their design. They should have fitted the sample chamber with a dust filter designed to prevent the ingress of small particles. That way it would soon get full of them.

  23. Gary Hoffsommer

    ...and the beat goes on...

    All of this sounds like "Monday Morning Quarterbacking"...

  24. Charles Silver badge

    Mars is currently out of Human reach.

    For those who believe we could send a person to Mars, one must realize that those probes being discussed took the better part of *nine months* to get from Earth to Mars. Imagine having to pack sufficient food, water, air, and other necessities for what will be essentially a year-and-a-half round trip.

    There's also the matter of work cycles. Thanks to good design and prudent resource management, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers have been working long past their useful lives...and much longer than any human could stay on the red planet given the limited life-sustaining resources that could be packed not just for the lengthy round trip but for the stay there.

    To put it simply, NASA and the ESA recognize that getting a person to Mars is not very high on the priority list. Put home concerns first, they believe, and I agree with them...especially when the general public thinks the money is best spent on concerns on good old terra firma.

  25. Anonymous Coward

    To Herman, et al - water isn't wet on Mars

    I don't think you'll find a lot of mud around with an average temperature of around -50 degrees C at the Phoenix landing site. It's not like Glastonbury here.

    There's plenty of soil particles finer than 1mm btw - check out the microscope images at the Phoenix site. This is why the TEGA inlets were designed to vibrate (to sift the fines, try it with a box of cornflakes).

    Regarding manned missions to Mars, how do you intend to keep the crew alive during the 12 months it'd take to get there? And once you've got there, how do you intend to keep the crew alive on the surface while they sit out the 6-12 months it'd take for Mars to be in a favourable position for return to Earth? (Nevermind the small matter of carrying sufficient fuel to lift off from Mars and life support for the year-long cruise home).

    If you have solutions to these problems I suggest you send your CVs to NASA.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Easy to say sitting here on earth...

    You think these people are stupid? They're not, really.

    I'd say that the explanation given by the media is greatly oversimplified so as not to tax our poor brains.

    It's just that the Martians are sitting around stuffing up all the equipment we send there. No one wants to come right out and say it, but there you are.

  27. Fuzzy

    Endurance testing

    The engineers need to spend some time with the Toy designers at Tonka. My son spent the better part of 2 years runnng & smashing his toy truck against everything, including brick walls, those things are indestructible.

    Alternatively the first QA test any of these things should go through is the loving attention of a 3 yr old boy.

  28. Joe Cooper


    Realistically, they will probably just figure this out.

    And even if they have to send TEN of these things to get it right, it will still cost about 1/50th the price of sending a human.

  29. dervheid

    @ Re: "Unless you were trying to be ironic"

    So you get irony.

    Maybe not sarcasm though!

  30. Anonymous Coward

    @dervheid -Oh Dear, We Seem to Have a Misanthrope in the House


    In the future, I'll try to be a bit more direct. I keep forgetting that some people experienced so many "atomic wedgies" in school that they seem to have completely lost their capacity for human playfulness.



    Geek Icon


  31. Anonymous Coward

    What the..

    NASA here. We have now sifted, baked and analysed particles from the Martian surface. We found nanoscopic Intel chips inside most of them, WTF?

    We at NASA welcome our time/space travelling overlords.

  32. Roger Brown

    Kim Stanley Robinson.....

    .....would be worth reading at this point: Red Mars covered much of the discussion over a peopled-mission to Mars, including the time/boredom of the 6 month trip out and that they'd have to be self-sufficient upon landing......if they landed.

    To my knowledge, the International Space Station is Expensive Step One in preparing for a peopled-mission to Mars, since the size of craft needed to get there properly is far too big to launch from Earth's gravity-well.

    Before landing on the Moon, the new Nasa could only make educated guesses about the state of the Moon's surface from all those pictures they took. Sending robots wasn't an option then.

    They are now. Robots will always go first, 'cos they're expendable and cheaper....and there's only so much room in each robot.

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