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Mars lander ordered to dig

NASA's Phoenix lander was ordered Wednesday to begin its long-awaited exploration of Mars' north pole region by clawing into the permafrost to search for evidence of the building blocks of life.

Scientists told the lander to dig the first of three shallow pits north of where it landed on May 25. By the end of the week, it will dump the dirt into a tiny oven where it will be baked and studied.

Mission managers won't know until today how Phoenix fared on its first dig. Because the robot communicates with Earth through two Mars satellites, it has to wait until the end of the day when a satellite flies overhead to send back images and data.

The green light to scrape the surface came after an extensive check of Phoenix's 8-foot robotic arm and other instruments. The lander is the first to settle in the northern latitudes to study whether the polar environment is capable of supporting primitive life.

“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.

Before the actual work, Phoenix had playtime in the Martian dirt, doing two practice runs that involved scooping up and then dumping out fistfuls of soil. The tests yielded an intriguing scientific find: In both cases, the loose soil was mixed with glints of white bits that scientists believe is either surface ice or salt deposits.

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.