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Phoenix scrapes more Martian soil samples

Pasadena, Calif. -- The U.S. space agency says its Phoenix Mars Lander has enlarged its so-called "Snow White" trench, scraping more soil samples for analysis.

The lander's robotic arm gathered little piles of icy soil Saturday -- the 33rd Martian day of the mission. National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said Monday the scrapings appear ideal for the lander's analytical instruments.

"The robotic arm on Phoenix used the blade on its scoop to make 50 scrapes in the icy layer buried under sub-surface soil," NASA said in a statement. "The robotic arm then heaped the scrapings into a few 10- to 20-cubic centimeter piles, or piles each containing between two and four teaspoonfuls."

Study: Mars air once had moisture

Berkeley, Calif. -- U.S.-led geoscientists say a Martian soil data analysis suggests there was once enough water in that planet's atmosphere for a light drizzle or dew to fall.

The University of California-Berkeley-led researchers said they used Martian soil analyses made by National Aeronautics and Space Administration spacecraft between 1976 and 2006.

"By analyzing the chemistry of the planet's soil, we can derive important information about Mars' climate history," said Professor Ronald Amundson, the study's lead author. "The dominant view … is that the chemistry of Mars soils is a mix of dust and rock that has accumulated over the eons, combined with impacts of upwelling groundwater, which is almost the exact opposite of any common process that forms soil on Earth.

NASA communications chief resigns

Washington -- The U.S. space agency's chief of strategic communications announced his resignation Monday to leave for an unspecified position in the private sector.

Robert Hopkins served as a senior adviser to National Aeronautics and Space Administration Deputy Administrator Shana Dale and as assistant administrator for the recently established Office of Communications Planning before assuming the strategic communications role.

"In these positions, he led the formulation of a strategic communications framework and implementation plan for the agency that provided a foundation for activities including planning for NASA's 50th anniversary in 2008," officials said in a statement.

"Bob is innovative and empowers his people to think outside the box," Dale said. "He and his team have developed message themes that resonate with the American public and figured out creative, new ways to deliver those messages.

Cassini ends one mission, begins another

Pasadena, Calif. -- The U.S. space agency's Cassini spacecraft is ending its first mission at Saturn and starting a two-year task to focus on Saturn's moons Titan and Enceladus.

Cassini completed its four-year primary mission Monday, beginning the extended mission, which was approved in April.

"Among other things, Cassini revealed the Earth-like world of Saturn's moon Titan and showed the potential habitability of another moon, Enceladus," the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said.

"These two worlds are primary targets in the two-year extended mission, dubbed the Cassini Equinox Mission," officials said. "This time period also will allow for monitoring seasonal effects on Titan and Saturn, exploring new places within Saturn's magnetosphere, and observing the unique ring geometry of the Saturn equinox in August of 2009, when sunlight will pass directly through the plane of the rings."

SOHO discovers its 1,500th comet

Greenbelt, Md -- The U.S. and European space agencies say the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, known as SOHO, has discovered its 1,500th comet.

SOHO's achievement sets a record, making it more successful than all the other discoverers of comets put together, the ESA said, noting "that's not bad for a spacecraft that was designed as a solar physics mission."

SOHO's history-making discovery occurred last Wednesday.

The satellite's comet discoveries come on top of the solar physics revelations SOHO has provided during the 13 years it has been in space.

"Catching the enormous total of comets has been an unplanned bonus," said Bernhard Fleck, the European Space Agency's SOHO Project Scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Astronaut James Reilly leaves NASA

Washington -- The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said veteran U.S. astronaut James Reilly has left NASA to accept a position in the private sector.

Reilly flew on three space shuttle missions to two space stations.

"Jim Reilly performed superbly as an astronaut over the course of his career at NASA," Astronaut Office Chief Steve Lindsey said. "His technical,

operational and people skills contributed directly to the success of the space shuttle and International Space Station programs. He was a key leader in the Astronaut Office and will be missed."

Reilly clocked more than 853 hours in space, with his five spacewalks totaling more than 31 hours.

Selected as an astronaut in 1994, Reilly first flew in January 1998 aboard shuttle Endeavour's STS-89 mission, the eighth shuttle mission to visit the Russian space station Mir. He next flew in 2001 aboard space shuttle Atlantis during STS-104, performing three spacewalks to install the joint airlock on the International Space Station.

Astronaut Barbara Morgan to leave NASA

Washington -- U.S. astronaut Barbara Morgan says she's leaving the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to become an educator at Idaho's Boise State University.

Morgan logged more than 305 hours in space during shuttle Endeavour's STS-118 mission to the International Space Station in August 2007. She operated the shuttle and station robotic arms to install hardware, inspect the orbiter and support spacewalks. She also taught lessons to schoolchildren on Earth during the mission.

Astronaut Office Chief Steve Lindsey said: "From the Teacher in Space Program to her current position as a fully qualified astronaut, she has set a superb example and been a consistent role model for both teachers and students. She will be missed."

Morgan served as the backup to payload specialist Christa McAuliffe in the Teacher in Space Program. McAuliffe and six other astronauts died in the

NASA awards Kennedy space center contract

Cape Canaveral, Fla -- The U.S. space agency has given a Chevy Chase, Md., firm a contract to provide information and communications support at the Kennedy Space Center.

The Abacus Technology Corp.'s cost-plus-award-fee contract commences Oct. 1, with a five-year base period and four one-year options to extend performance. If all options are exercised and the maximum amount of work is ordered, officials said the potential value of the contract would be approximately $898 million.

Abacus will furnish resources, including management, personnel, equipment and supplies to support Kennedy's work, including voice communications, visual imaging and timing, transmission and cable systems, administrative phones, institutional computer networks, network IT security, publications, library and computer services, NASA said, with some services also provided to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Patrick Air Force Base.

Minerals in Mars – Tests Determine Presence of Nutrients in Martian Soil

In what is sure to be a thrilling find for scientists and alien life-watchers across the world, the Martian mystery continues to unravel, with the robotic lab on board the Phoenix spacecraft discovering nutrients that could support plant life.

Phoenix Mars lander analyzes soil

Washington -- The U.S. space agency's Phoenix Mars Lander has placed a sample of Martian soil into its wet chemistry laboratory for the first time.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientists said results from that instrument, part of Phoenix's Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer, are expected to provide the first measurement of the acidity or alkalinity of Martian soil. That will help researchers determine whether ice beneath the soil ever has melted, and whether the soil has other qualities favorable for life, NASA said.

The Phoenix team Thursday discussed what sample to deliver next to the lander's other analytical instrument, which bakes and sniffs soil to identify volatile ingredients. Engineers have identified possible problems in the operation of that instrument, the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer, or TEGA.