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Published: Tuesday, 6/10/2008

Dirt is from Mars, oven from earth

ASSOCIATED PRESS

LOS ANGELES - Scientists troubleshooting the Phoenix lander said yesterday they will try one last shake to get a scoopful of Martian dirt inside a tiny oven in hopes of jump-starting their study of Mars' north pole region.

Phoenix's first science experiment to heat the permafrost soil was delayed after it was discovered that virtually none of it passed through a screen to reach a miniature oven aboard the spacecraft that will heat soil and sniff the resulting vapors for signs of life-friendly elements.

"This soil is very cohesive and it's very hard for it to get through the screen," said mission scientist William Boynton of the University of Arizona.

If shaking the oven doesn't work, scientists will try sprinkling dirt through the opening of a new oven or using the lander's 8-foot robotic arm to grind up the dirt first.

It's the biggest challenge faced by Phoenix since landing in the Martian arctic on May 25 on a three-month mission to study whether the environment could be habitable for alien life.



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