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Mars Phoenix Lander Fine After Glitch

The orbiting Odyssey satellite went into safe mode and failed to send instructions to Phoenix to claw into the permafrost to search for evidence of the building blocks of life, said Chad Edwards, chief telecommunications engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

It’s the second time a relay problem has delayed the lander’s schedule. The first glitch occurred two days after it landed, when another satellite, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, turned off its radio.

Engineers worked to fix the problem with Odyssey, which will remain offline until Saturday, Edwards said. A preliminary investigation revealed the safe mode was probably triggered by high-energy particles from space interrupting the satellite’s computer memory.

“The lander is fine,” Edwards said.

Phoenix set down in Mars’ northern latitudes to study whether the polar environment is capable of supporting primitive life. It talks with Earth through Odyssey and the Reconnaissance Orbiter, which make daily passes over the lander to send commands and beam back images.

With Odyssey temporarily out of service, engineers told the Reconnaissance Orbiter to be the middleman between the lander and Earth.

“It’s absolutely an incredibly science-rich location,” said chief scientist Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson, who heads the three-month, $420 million mission.

Phoenix zeroed in on three sites to the right of the test dig area that scientists have playfully named Baby Bear, Mama Bear and Papa Bear.