Scientists Excited After Safe Mars Landing

The Phoenix Mars Lander touched down Sunday on the Red Planet without a hitch. Onboard instruments will analyze the ice and look for signs of life at a relatively boring-looking landing site. Joe Palca was at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., for the landing.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

ROBERT SMITH, Host:

And I'm Robert Smith.

Imagine sending your baby 422 million miles through space and then finding out that it made it safely to the surface of Mars.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

RICHARD KORNFELD: Phoenix has landed. Phoenix has landed. Welcome to the northern plains of Mars.

SMITH: That was Richard Kornfeld at the Mission Control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Phoenix is now sitting on the frozen soil near the North Pole of Mars. Its mission is to study the icy soil near the pole, trying to see whether conditions there might've once been favorable for life.

NPR's Joe Palca was at the lab for yesterday's landing.

JOE PALCA: A staggering number of things have to go just right to slow a spacecraft down from 12,000 miles an hour to five miles an hour in just seven minutes. That's why everyone here at JPL refers to this as the seven minutes of terror.

MONTAGNE: Atmospheric entry on my mark. Five, four, three, two, one. Mark.

PALCA: The seven minutes started when Phoenix reached the top of the Martian atmosphere. Even though the air on Mars is extremely thin, it was enough to slow Phoenix down to about 750 miles an hour. A parachute continued the deceleration. Then retrorockets fired to bring things to the speed of a brisk walk.

All the way down mission managers were getting information about the spacecraft's status. In the control room, mission managers held their breath as Phoenix made its final descent.

Unidentified Man #1: Fifty meters. Thirty meters. Twenty-seven meters. Twenty meters. Fifteen meters. Standing by for touch down. Touch down signal detected.

PALCA: About an hour after the landing signal, an elated gaggle of mission managers met with reporters.

Unidentified Man #2: So how'd it go?

PETER SMITH: It was OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: Did you guys see it?

Unidentified Woman: Yes.

SMITH: Did you see it? Unbelievable. Fabulous. Picture perfect. Picture perfect.

BARRY GOLDSTEIN: It was better than we could've possibly wished for. Everything we wanted in the telemetry. Everything locked up the way we wanted it. We rehearse - over and over again we rehearse all the problems. And none of them occurred. It went perfectly, just the way we designed it.

PALCA: That was Barry Goldstein, a JPL engineer who was the project manager for the Phoenix mission. And before him you heard Peter Smith from the University of Arizona. He's the chief scientist for Phoenix.

Both men warned that the real celebration would have to wait until managers could be certain the lander's solar panels had opened. Without solar panels to recharge them, the batteries on the lander would only last about 30 hours. But the wait wasn't very long.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

PALCA: Less than an hour later, the first pictures from Phoenix arrived on Earth, showing fully opened panels as well as a flat Martian terrain marked with the occasional small rock.

Peter Smith admits the landing site looks a little, well, boring.

SMITH: I know it looks a little like a parking lot...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: ...but that's a safe place to land, by gosh. And there are not any big rocks. I think we really, really nailed it. That was the place we were looking for and that's what we found. Now, that makes it exactly the place we want to be, because underneath this surface, I guarantee you, is...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: ...ice. There's ice under this surface. It doesn't look like it. You don't see any ice, but it's down there.

PALCA: And it's the ice that Smith and his fellow scientists want to study. They will be using instruments onboard Phoenix to measure the characteristics of the ice - what kinds of minerals and salts it contains and how it interacts with the surrounding soil and air.

While it can't find life directly, Phoenix will look for the building blocks of life and for evidence that the conditions on Mars could, just possibly, be suitable for living organisms.

SMITH: This is a scientist's dream, right here on this landing site.

PALCA: The nice thing for Smith is it's a dream that's scheduled to last for 90 days and possibly longer.

Joe Palca, NPR News, Pasadena.

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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 i

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

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

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

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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