NASA announced today that the Phoenix Mars Lander has made the first direct measurement of water on Mars. I’m not involved with the project, but I think it’s pretty amazing to think that they have a robot with a chemistry set, cameras, and various manipulators digging around in the Martian dirt right now.
Some of the pictures taken by the lander are pretty amazing:
It’s getting better and better. The on-board wet chemistry lab seems to have found perchlorate - a highly oxidising substance. Let’s hope it’s not just contamination. I believe aluminium perchlorate is used in rocket fuel.
It is amazing. Some years back I was involved with someone from JPL via a robotics forum who was working on a dust measurement system for the original rover. I remember because he had posted that they wanted to have two optical sensors that measured light through a glass plate. A cover would close over half the plate to protect it, the other half was allowed to collect dust. The cover would lift and a measurement would be taken.
They were talking about the software, a PIC16F84 (I believe) was being used at least in the mockup. Anyway… I wrote a sample code to read 20 samples and discard the highest 5 and the lowest 5, then average the remaining 10. This weeded out inconsistencies. Later I found out that they just cut and pasted my assembled code snippet and went with it. It was only about 5 lines or so I did in PBASIC PRO at the time (then compiled)… but I thought it was neat that in some small way a part of me went to Mars. I can’t imagine the pride of the people who actually got to build this stuff have knowing their hardware is up there forever.