NASA's Phoenix Set to Touch Down on Red Planet

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The Mars Phoenix probe is scheduled to touch down on Mars around 7:53 Eastern Time on Sunday. If all goes well, it will land near the red planet's north pole. There, it will sample the ice that lies just beneath the surface. On-board instruments will analyze the ice and will look for signs of life.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

And I'm Noah Adams.

If all goes well this weekend, an emissary from Earth will land on Mars. NASA's Phoenix probe is scheduled to touch down near the Martian North Pole on Sunday. This probe is not exactly like the rovers that are still rolling around on the Martian surface. The Phoenix will stay in one place for its 90-day mission. But it is carrying sophisticated equipment that will help answer the big question: could Mars have ever harbored life?

NPR's Joe Palca has a report.

JOE PALCA: Here's a little quiz. What do the following space missions have in common?

LYNN NEARY: Cosmos 419.

ADAMS: Mars 2.

NEDA ULABY: Mars 6..

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Mars 7.

PAM FESSLER: Phobos 1.

RICHARD HARRIS: Phobos 2.

JESSICA GOLDSTEIN: Mars 96.

COREY FLINTOFF: Mars Polar Lander.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Beagle 2.

PALCA: If you said they're all missions to Mars, that's correct. But that only gets you partial credit. What's significant about these nine spacecraft is that they were all suppose to land on Mars and they all failed. That will help you understand why scientists talk like this at news conferences when a mission actually succeeds.

(Soundbite of archived video clip)

Mr. PETER SMITH (University of Arizona): The joy that fills my heart has overflowed my body and risen to the heavens and has reached to Mars.

PALCA: That was Peter Smith on July 6, 1997, two days after the little bitty Mars rover known as Pathfinder bounced safely down to the Martian surface. Smith is a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona. He led the team that built the main camera on Pathfinder as well as the main camera for Mars Polar Lander that crashed. Now he's the scientist in charge of the entire Phoenix mission that will reach Mars this weekend. Being in charge is not a job he particularly wanted, as he told reporters last week.

Mr. SMITH: Well, I've experienced a wonderful success with Pathfinder in building the camera. And then the very disappointing failure with Polar Lander when we had no pictures returned from our cameras. But by gosh, we spent 15 years developing the hardware and I really wanted some return from those. So I had to take on the entire mission to do so. But that's what I have to do and that's what I'm going to do. And by God, we're going to get pictures.

PALCA: The pictures will come from the same camera that was to fly on the cancelled mission. In fact, a lot of the hardware is from the mission that died bureaucratically before it left the ground; hence the name Phoenix for the current mission.

Today, all the successful Mars landings have been relatively close to the dry equatorial zone on Mars, where not much besides dust storms has been happening for billions of years. Phoenix, on the other hand, is going to the far North of Mars. For comparison, a similar place on Earth would be the North Coast of Canada. Smith says scientists know there is plenty of water in the form of ice near the Martian Poles.

Mr. SMITH: By landing on the ice in the northern plains, we're looking at active processes that is taking place today. And these active processes have to do with the expansion and contraction of that ice throughout the seasonal changes. We're going to see climate change written into the soil.

PALCA: In addition to the cameras, Phoenix has onboard chemistry labs that will allow scientists what kinds of chemicals and minerals are in the Polar soil. While the labs can't detect life, they can tell us conditions were once favorable to life, where the water wasn't too acidic or too salty for life to exist. Phoenix left for Mars last August. Project manager Barry Goldstein says the spacecraft has been thoroughly tested and they have found problems. But Goldstein says it's not the problems they found that makes him and everyone else associated with the mission nervous.

Mr. BARRY GOLDSTEIN (Project Manager, Phoenix Project): What scares every each and every one of us is what is it we haven't thought about in the system? What is it we don't know?

PALCA: With luck, whatever they haven't thought about will be minor. And by next week another NASA mission will be sending data back from Mars.

Joe Palca, NPR News.

ADAMS: Humans have tried to reach Mars 39 times; more than half of those missions failed. You can get the highlights of these earthly attempts to film, orbit, and touch the Red Planet at npr.org.

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NASA's Phoenix to Look for Ice on Mars

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

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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