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Martian weather reports courtesy of Canada

(edit by Taller, Better. Original print title in the Post:
Martian weather reports courtesy of York Science)

Tom Spears, Canwest News Service Published: Wednesday, May 28, 2008
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A U.S. flag and a DVD containing messages for future explorers sit on the deck of the Phoenix Mars Lander yesterdayNASA/JPL-Caltech/University Of Arizona/Getty ImagesA U.S. flag and a DVD containing messages for future explorers sit on the deck of the Phoenix Mars Lander yesterday

It was a sunny day to do some rock collecting on Mars yesterday, with light winds and not much blowing sand. The high was -30 C, but you'd want a warmer spacesuit to stay out late, because the low dropped to a chilly -80 C.

A Canada-U. S. mission to Mars made a soft landing on Sunday night, and researchers at York University are thrilled that our $37-million weather station is up and running without a hitch.

"Rather cold," said Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, the chief scientist for Mars Phoenix. "But not as cold as it would be if the sun set for part of the day.

"Remember, we're above the Arctic Circle" at the landing site, he told a NASA press conference from Tucson. That means it's the Martian land of the midnight sun for now. The sun won't dip below the horizon until August sometime.

"Our Canadian team has done an excellent job of giving us weather data," he said. Sometime this morning, "they'll give us their first measurements of cloud height."

Today the Canadian team plans to start running the special "lidar" (like radar, but using laser light), which will shine straight up to measure clouds, fog and dust in the thin atmosphere.

For now, the first Canadian equipment ever to transmit data from another planet is the mundane-sounding P and T instrument (for pressure and temperature).

It did a stellar job on Mars Lander Day One, sending back data recorded over 19 hours: Temperatures from -30 C to -80 C, and air pressure of eight millibars, compared with an average of just over 1,000 at sea level on Earth, indicating a very thin atmosphere.

Canada's "met" station also measured the wind -- 22 kilometres an hour, from the northeast.

"So that's today's weather report, and we'll be hearing more weather every day," Mr. Smith said.

NASA was cleared enthused about Sunday's successful landing -- so close to the planned landing spot (just seven kilometres from it) that an older Mars probe orbiting 300 kilometres overhead was able to look down and photograph Phoenix in colour.

With its metallic solar panels reflecting bright sunlight, the lander shows as a glowing blue spot against a dull reddish background. A white parachute and dark heat shield lie a few hundred metres away.

More good news: The ground is free of big rocks that could hinder digging by the 2.5-metre-long robotic arm.
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