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Falling dirt on Mars lifts spirits at NASA

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A NASA photo shows trenches dug by Phoenix's arm. Dirt from the right trench will be tested.

A NASA photo shows trenches dug by Phoenix’s arm. Dirt from the right trench will be tested.

Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — NASA's Phoenix Mars lander was not the only one doing the shaking.

Scientists operating the spacecraft broke into song and dance on Wednesday after learning that their latest effort to shake lumps of Martian soil into a tiny testing oven worked.

Mission scientist William Boynton, who leads the oven experiment, recalled how he danced to the disco tune "(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty" after announcing the good news to his team.

"The dirt finally did start to flow and we actually got a full oven," Boynton of the University of Arizona in Tucson told a news conference. "So that problem is now behind us."

Scientists failed six times to get soil scooped up from the Martian arctic into one of eight miniature ovens on the lander that will test for evidence of the chemical building blocks of life. In a last-ditch effort this week, scientists vibrated the dirt-covered mesh screen a final time in hopes that bits would shake through and fill the oven.

Data sent back by Phoenix early Wednesday showed its baking instrument brimming with a pinch of soil — enough to conduct the first experiment of the mission. The next step is to seal the oven and gradually heat the soil up to 1,800 degrees to measure the amount of water and study the minerals in the sample. Results from the first analysis were expected next week.

In the meantime, the robot was instructed to sprinkle another scoopful of dirt into its microscope to examine the soil.

The three-legged Phoenix set down near the Martian north pole on May 25 on a three-month mission to claw into the permafrost, and determine whether the polar environment has the raw ingredients to support primitive life.

Scientists have been surprised by the clumpiness of the soil at the landing site, which they described as crusty on the surface and looser below.

"It's apparently a very sticky material too," said Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, who heads the $420 million mission.

On the Net: Phoenix Mars: phoenix.lpl.arizona.edu