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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Phoenix Lands On Mars

After travelling for nine months in space, NASA's Phoenix spacecraft has landed in the northern polar region of Mars on Sunday.

This landing site (approx. 68 degree N latitude, 233 degrees E longitude) was chosen because the Mars Odyssey orbiter had discovered in 2002 that a significant amount of water ice lies just beneath the surface at the higher latitude regions of Mars.

The main mission of the lander is to use its 2.35 metre robotic arm to examine the soil and ice samples around it.

One goal of analyzing the properties of the soil and ice is to learn more about the history of water on Mars.

If fine sediments of mud and silt are found at the landing site, this may support the hypothesis that an ancient ocean once existed on Mars. Alternatively, coarse sediments of sand might indicate past flowing water, especially if the grains are rounded and well-sorted, indicating water erosion.

Another important goal is to assess the suitability of the Martian polar environment to support life, by conducting sophisticated chemical experiments that will test the soil for life-giving elements such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and hydrogen.

Here is one of the latest photos that it transmitted back to Earth:

This successful landing is significant for me because I once followed the Mars Polar Lander mission very closely and stayed up all night to watch the live telecast of its landing on TV.

The expected time of arrival came and went, but no signal was received from the lander. As the hours dragged on, and continuous attempts to communicate with the vehicle failed, you can see the mission personnel becoming more and more discouraged.

Eventually that spacecraft never called back and it was declared lost. It was a great disappointment to us space exploration fans. One can imagine how devastated the mission teams would have felt.

Later, the basic layout of the Polar Lander and some of its instruments would become the basis of the Phoenix lander.

Here is a computer animation that shows you the perilous journey that the Phoenix spacecraft took in order to get to Mars.

Congratulations to the Phoenix mission teams for this incredible achievement!

*Update 28 May 2008

Check out this breathtaking photograph of the Phoenix spacecraft parachuting onto the surface of Mars. It was taken by a high resolution camera (the HiRISE) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This marks the first time in history that a spacecraft has photographed another one during the landing process on Mars.

Click the above photo for the full resolution image at NASA.

Pipette tip to Bad Astronomy.