Phoenix lander samples a little Martian dirt

Slideshow ( 3 images )

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander has scooped up a little dirt, scientists said on Sunday, a first step towards sampling the Martian soil for ice -- and the potential for life.

The lander then took a picture of the footprint-shaped impression its robotic arm scoop left on its trial run, NASA said.

“This first touch allows us to utilize the Robotic Arm accurately. We are in a good situation for the upcoming sample acquisition and transfer,” David Spencer, Phoenix’s surface mission manager from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.

Phoenix’s Robotic Arm Camera also took a number of images of what appears to be exposed ice under the lander.

Phoenix, which touched down on Mars one week ago on Sunday after a 10-month, 420 million-mile (676 million-km) journey from Earth, will bore into the ground and study water and soil samples to determine if conditions were ever suitable to support life.

“What we see in the images is in agreement with the notion that it may be ice, and we suspect we will see the same thing in the digging area,” said Uwe Keller of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany.

“We could very well be seeing rock, or we could be seeing exposed ice in the retrorocket blast zone,” agreed Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis.

“We’ll test the two ideas by getting more data, including color data, from the robotic arm camera. We think that if the hard features are ice, they will become brighter because atmospheric water vapor will collect as new frost on the ice,” Arvidson added in a statement.

The Viking landers in the 1970s and early 1980s conducted similar tests on surface soils. The detection of subsurface frozen water in 2002 by Mars Odyssey prompted scientists to propose the Phoenix mission.

Reporting by Maggie Fox, editing by Vicki Allen