Phoenix Sends Color Photos of Mars to NASA

A split-screen image shows the Phoenix module dropping toward the surface of Mars (left). At right, i i

hide captionA split-screen image shows the Phoenix module dropping toward the surface of Mars (left). At right, one of the first images beamed back by the lander.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
A split-screen image shows the Phoenix module dropping toward the surface of Mars (left). At right,

A split-screen image shows the Phoenix module dropping toward the surface of Mars (left). At right, one of the first images beamed back by the lander.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

NASA is getting its first close views of the north pole of Mars. The half-billion-dollar Phoenix Mars Lander touched down on the planet Sunday night to begin at least three months of experiments.

The first detailed color pictures from the Phoenix lander arrived on Earth Monday. Guy Raz talks to NPR's Joe Palca at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena about what scientists say they are seeing.

Among the revelations: a telescopic image of Phoenix hanging from its parachute as it drops toward the red planet's surface. The image from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter represents the first time a Mars landing has been captured by another spacecraft.

Later today, scientists are expected to complete a full color panorama of the landing site of the Mars Phoenix mission.

Phoenix spent its first full day in the Martian arctic plains checking its instruments in preparation for an ambitious digging mission to study whether the site could have once been habitable.

Sol 1, as the days are known on Mars, was a busy time for the three-legged lander, which set down Sunday in relatively flat terrain cut by polygon-shaped fissures. The geometric cracks are likely caused by the repeated freezing and thawing of buried ice.

"We've only looked at one tiny little slit" of the landing site, principal investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson said Monday.

Phoenix planned to take more views of its surroundings to help scientists zero in on a digging site and also take images of its onboard instruments, including its trench-digging robotic arm.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press.

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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