Countdown to the Mars Phoenix Landing

The Mars Phoenix is scheduled to touch down on the Red Planet on Sunday. The Phoenix — whose name evokes the magical bird that can rise from the ashes — incorporates some of the experiments and technologies that were originally scheduled to fly on previous missions that were canceled or failed.

The lander plans to touch down in an arctic plane and then hunt for frozen water and, perhaps, signs of life. Peter Smith, principal investigator at NASA's Phoenix Mars Mission, talks about the mission and what scientists hope it will achieve.

NASA's Phoenix to Look for Ice on Mars

The Phoenix's robotic arm digs a trench in the arctic plains. (Artist conception) i i

The Phoenix's robotic arm digs a trench in the arctic plains. (Artist conception) Phoenix Mission, University of Arizona hide caption

itoggle caption Phoenix Mission, University of Arizona
The Phoenix's robotic arm digs a trench in the arctic plains. (Artist conception)

The Phoenix's robotic arm digs a trench in the arctic plains. (Artist conception)

Phoenix Mission, University of Arizona

Past Blasts to Mars

There have been 39 separate missions to Mars, and more than half have failed.

  

Get the highlights of these Earthly attempts to film, circle and touch the cold Red Planet.

Phoenix streaks through the Martian atmosphere, protected by its heat shield. (Artist conception) i i

Phoenix streaks through the Martian atmosphere, protected by its heat shield. (Artist conception) Phoenix Mission, University of Arizona hide caption

itoggle caption Phoenix Mission, University of Arizona
Phoenix streaks through the Martian atmosphere, protected by its heat shield. (Artist conception)

Phoenix streaks through the Martian atmosphere, protected by its heat shield. (Artist conception)

Phoenix Mission, University of Arizona

An emissary from Earth has landed on Mars. NASA's Phoenix probe touched down near the Martian North Pole on Sunday shortly before 8 p.m. ET.

Unlike the successful rover missions that continue to roll around on the Martian surface, Phoenix will stay in one place for its 90-day mission. But it has brought sophisticated equipment that will help determine whether Mars could once have harbored life.

Phoenix is in a part of Mars no lander has yet explored. Peter Smith from the University of Arizona is the scientist in charge of the mission. He says all the landing missions to date have gone to the dry, equatorial zone on Mars, where much of the landscape hasn't changed in billions of years.

"By landing on the northern plains, we're looking at active processes that are taking place today," says Smith. Scientists know that there is water in the form of ice at the Martian poles. "And these active processes have to do with the expansion and contraction of that ice," he says. "We're going to see climate change written into the soils."

In addition to several cameras, Phoenix has onboard chemistry labs that will allow scientists to see what kinds of chemicals and minerals are in the polar soil. While the labs can't detect life, they can tell if conditions were once favorable to life, whether the water in the ice was too acidic or too salty for life to exist.

The Phoenix mission is intended to last 90 days. It may last a little longer, but not much. When the sun drops below the horizon during the Martian winter, there will be no way to recharge the lander's batteries. Once they drain completely, the mission is over.

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