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Radio glitch hinders Mars lander mission

Latest update : 2008-05-27

A communications glitch between the Phoenix Mars probe and Earth has delayed operations, two days after the spacecraft landed on the Red Planet in search of conditions to support life, NASA said Tuesday.

A "transient event" knocked out UHF radio transmissions between Phoenix and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which relays data and instructions between the Phoenix and Earth, said Fuk Li, the Mars Exploration Program manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Li said a possible cause of the MRO radio failure -- which he said had never occurred before -- was high-speed cosmic ray particles colliding with it. But he said the explanation was not clear, and that NASA scientists were actively working on the problem.

Li said that the problem was not with the Phoenix, and that another orbiter, the Odyssey, could serve as a communications backup, so that the three-month Phoenix mission to probe the Mars arctic permafrost for the liquid water and minerals necessary for basic life to exist was not in jeopardy.

However, he acknowledged that the incident had delayed sending instructions to the Phoenix that would tell its cameras and other equipment what to do.

"We know for sure it is with MRO," he said of the problem.

"Phoenix is healthy," he added, pointing out that the problem did not affect communications between the MRO and Earth.

NASA officials reported another small problem aboard the Phoenix, which landed in Mars' north pole region on sunday, involving equipment on the spacecraft potentially interfering with the deployment of its 2.35 meter- (7.7 foot-) backhoe-like arm, to be used to dig into the icy soil.

The obstructions were moved out of the way, Li said, but the problem delayed deployment of the arm from Tuesday until Wednesday.

Date created : 2008-05-27

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