NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander will assess how heat and electricity move through Martian soil from one spike or needle to another of a four-spike electronic fork that will be pushed into the soil at different stages of digging by the lander's Robotic Arm.
The four-spike tool, called the thermal and electrical conductivity probe, is in the middle-right of this photo, mounted near the end of the arm near the lander's scoop (upper left).
In one type of experiment with this tool, a pulse of heat will be put into one spike, and the rate at which the temperature rises on the nearby spike will be recorded, along with the rate at which the heated spike cools. A little bit of ice can make a big difference in how well soil conducts heat. Similarly, soil's electrical conductivity -- also tested with this tool -- is a sensitive
indicator of moisture in the soil.This device adapts technology used in soil-moisture gauges for irrigation-control systems. The conductivity probe has an additional role besides soil analysis. It will serve as a hunidity sensor when held in the air.
Photojournal Note: As planned, the Phoenix lander, which landed May 25, 2008 23:53 UTC, ended communications in November 2008, about six months after landing, when its solar panels ceased operating in the dark Martian winter.