GUY RAZ, host:
Now to Pasadena, California, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. There you'll find a lot of tired but elated scientists and engineers. That's because last night the Mars Phoenix Lander successfully touched down at the northern polar region of Mars. Now, if anxiety kept that team awake before the landing, the need to get to work on Mars is keeping them up now.
NPR's Joe Palca is at JPL and joins me.
JOE PALCA: Hey, Guy.
RAZ: So how's the lander doing?
PALCA: Well, unbelievably well I think is how you'd have to characterize it. They hoped it would come down on a flat surface and it came down perfectly flat. They hoped it would be oriented east/west so that the solar panels would get the most light. It's .6 degrees off of east/west. So I think everything, you'd have to say, is working just about - as they say in space or in JPL talk, everything is nominal.
RAZ: So what do the first pictures tells us about the spot that Rover actually - sorry, the Phoenix Lander, where it actually touchdown on Mars?
PALCA: Well, it shows that it's a flat place, which there were hoping for. There's no boulders to get in the way, which they were very anxious to avoid. It also, you can see these polygonal grooves. They saw these from outer space. They're seeing them on the ground. These are grooves that seem to have been put there by ice pushing the soil up and then letting it - and sinking back down as the temperature changes. So it's very interesting. But I have to tell you, Guy, the best picture so far didn't come from the Phoenix at all. It came from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is it orbit around Mars. It snapped a picture of the Phoenix as the Phoenix was coming down...
PALCA: ...to the surface with its parachute open. Can you believe it? They saw a picture of this thing coming down on a parachute from another orbiting spacecraft around Mars. Unbelievable.
RAZ: That's amazing. So what is Phoenix trying to learn about Mars that we don't already know?
PALCA: Well, we - the things that scientists are hoping to learn from this landing site is more about what the water on Mars is like. They've been looking at evidence. The rovers more toward the equator have been looking at evidence of ancient water, what the water had - was doing when it was there. At the poles they know there's water there. It's in the form of ice. They're going to be - they brought up instruments that can melt the ice, see what's dissolved in it, see what kind of compounds it has in it, see what kind of minerals there are in it, see what kind of crystals there are to see, something about how long the ice has been there, see if there's any new ice. So the idea is to see whether there's a time when Mars was warmer and wetter and whether there was - if it was warmer in wetter, whether the ice, the water that's there is the kind of water that could have sustained life.
RAZ: Hmm. And when are those results supposed to start coming in?
PALCA: Well, the first week or so, it's mostly going to be, you know, it's the check-out phase (unintelligible). You get a new car, you take it out for a drive and you want to make sure that everything - all the belts are tight and it's got the proper grease and everything. So the first week or so, it's going to be mostly doing those kinds of - the check-outs.
But even now they're starting to do more sophisticated things, like these photographs, the first pictures, just thin little slices. But by tomorrow they expect to have an entire color panorama of the landing zone and then they'll start extending the arm and scooping up dirt samples and putting it into the onboard instruments. And it should be - in a couple of weeks, we should be learning something about exactly what life is like in this part of the Red Planet. It's a place nobody has ever been to before.
RAZ: NPR's Joe Palca at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
PALCA: You bet.
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