WASHINGTON, May 26 – An ambitious effort to determine whether Mars’ arctic region ever had microbial forms of life was underway Monday after NASA landed the Phoenix probe near the Red Planet’s north pole and began sending pictures.
After a nine-month journey from Earth, Phoenix managed an almost perfect landing in a relatively rock-free, flat target area, said Barry Goldstein, Phoenix project manager at the mission’s control center at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
Radio signals received at 7:53 pm Eastern Time (2353 GMT) confirmed the Phoenix Mars Lander had survived its difficult final descent and touchdown, officials said.
"For the first time in 32 years, and only the third time in history, a JPL team has carried out a soft landing on Mars," National Aeronautics and Space Administration head Michael Griffin said in a statement. "I couldn’t be happier to be here to witness this incredible achievement."
Phoenix had to deploy a parachute and then thrusters to slow its descent from 20,400 kilometers per hour (12,700 miles per hour) in a tense seven minutes, managing a soft landing on its three legs.
Once on the surface, it unfolded its solar arrays that are crucial to generating power during the mission.
Working in the flat circumpolar region known as Vastitas Borealis — akin to northern Canada in Earth’s latitude — Phoenix, with a panoply of high-tech equipment, will over three months dig below the surface to probe the icy ground for signs of liquid water and organic, life-supporting minerals.
Given that Mars’ polar region is subject to Earth-like seasonal changes, the scientists think that, like on Earth, the Martian arctic might have a geological record of a warmer, habitable climate.
"Our whole mission is about digging," said Peter Smith, Phoenix principal investigator at the University of Arizona, before the landing. "We find that the arctic region is really sensitive to climate change on a planet … it also preserves the history of life.
"We think that organics must have existed at least at one time" from meteorite and other impacts, he continued.
The presence of liquid water and organics would signify a "habitable zone," Smith said.
The team had been worried about the high risk of the project, with a roughly 50 percent failure rate on all Mars missions since the Soviet Union launched the first one in 1960.
Smith said the landing went without a hitch.
The first pictures showed a Martian landscape and parts of the craft itself.
Phoenix is equipped with a backhoe-like robotic arm, 2.35 meters (7.7 feet) long, designed to dig trenches up to one meter (three feet) deep for samples of soil and water ice.
The arm will deliver the samples to instruments aboard the lander for detailed chemical and geological analysis.
The robotic arm also carries a box-shaped camera with a double Gauss lens system like that in 35mm cameras, and two lighting assemblies.
This will take images of the surrounding area and of samples the arm picks up.
Another camera device is the surface stereo imager, what NASA calls Phoenix’s "eyes." Sitting two meters (6.6 feet) above the ground, the SSI will produce high-definition and panoramic images of the surrounding landscape.
Its stereo capability will help give scientists on Earth three-dimensional views of the work the robotic arm does. It can also be turned vertically to take images that will provide information on atmospheric particles.
Also deployed is a Canadian-built meteorological station to study the Mars atmosphere.