After a month of difficulty, the Mars Phoenix spacecraft is back in the baked goods business — and even got to put a little icing on top.

On Thursday, mission scientists announced they had managed to scrape some Martian soil up and sprinkle it inside one of the spacecraft’s eight ovens — where they discovered that a tiny bit of ice had tagged along with the soil. It’s the first ice actually sampled by the mission after weeks of fruitless attempts to get more pure ice in the ovens.

A panorama of the Phoenix landing site reveals its dusty environs. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/U. Arizona/Texas A&M

“There were champagne corks popping in the downlink room,” says William Boynton, lead scientist for the oven instrument at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Shorting out

The NASA spacecraft, which landed on the northern plains of Mars on 25 May, initially got off to a smooth start. But mission scientists had a problem using a robotic arm to dump soil into the first of its eight ovens, designed to bake soil and ice and sniff their evaporated gases.

That first scoop of soil was sticky, and when it was finally dumped onto the first oven door on 6 June it led to a short circuit. Cautious engineers told the scientists to next analyse a sample of buried ice. But the ice stayed stuck in the scoop during delivery attempts over the past two weeks. So the team decided to “get on with the dry soil,” and, on Wednesday, sprinkled the new soil sample into a second oven, Boynton says.

Mission scientists had been getting nervous that Phoenix was more than two-thirds through its initially scheduled lifetime. But at a Thursday news briefing, NASA Mars Exploration Program chief scientist Michael Meyer announced that the mission would be extended five weeks, to the end of September, at a cost of $2 million.

Next steps

Over the next week, Boynton and his team will continue baking the sample, ramping up the temperatures in stages to a maximum of 1,000 degrees Celsius. The little bit of ice, barely detectable in the initial heating, isn’t enough for an isotopic analysis that would help explain its history. Boynton says the team will eventually have to try again at gathering an ice sample off the concrete-hard surface.

Principal investigator Peter Smith, of the University of Arizona, notes that other instruments continue to function well. A wet-chemistry lab has analysed two samples and found the soil surprisingly alkaline. A meteorological station has gathered daily weather data during the summery polar days that so far have been calm.

And the main camera has completed a 100-megabyte panorama that reveals small rocks that are unusually free of wind-sculpted features, says Mark Lemmon, of Texas A&M University in College Station. Lemmon says his team is now embarking on a more detailed panorama requiring 1,500 individual images and two-thirds of a gigabyte of data.

"It’s the panorama we’ll go out in style with," he says.