AUGUST 4, 2007 - MAY 26, 2008

NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander lifts off from Pad 17A aboard a Delta II 7925 rocket
amid billows of smoke at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 5:26 a.m. EDT on Aug. 4, 2007.
Credit: NASA/Regina Mitchell-Ryall and Jerry Cannon.


This image details the path of NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander as it heads to a planned May 25, 2008
landing near the red planet's north pole. Credit: University of Arizona.

MARS IN THE HIVE: May 23, 2008 - "Mars has entered the realm of Beehive star cluster," reports Babak Tafreshi from the Alborz Mountains of Iran. "The conjunction is a beautiful scene even with smallest binoculars and modest telescopes."

"Mars crosses the heart of the cluster on Friday, May 23rd," adds Tafreshi. To find them, look west after sunset for the Red Planet glowing like a 1st magnitude star in the constellation Cancer: sky map. Scan the area with binoculars and voila!--Mars in the Hive.

NASA preps for '7 minutes of terror' on Mars


This photo provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona shows NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander suspended from its parachute as it lands on Mars on Sunday May 25, 2008 as seen by a telescopic camera in orbit.

(AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)




In this artist's illustration obtained from NASA shows the Phoenix Mars Lander on the surface of Mars after landing on the planet's surface



  • Mars Phoenix Lander team will be biting their nails Sunday during the landing
  • It will take just 7 minutes to enter atmosphere, slam on brakes, and touch down
  • If the landing is successful, the researchers will quickly begin science operations
  • Whether Phoenix will find evidence of life on Mars is impossible to predict

    (CNN) -- In the wake of the wildly successful Spirit and Opportunity rover missions, you would think NASA would approach the landing of the next Martian probe with high confidence.

    But the truth is sometimes not what you would think.

    "I do not feel confident. But in my heart I'm an optimist, and I think this is going to be a very successful mission," said principal investigator Peter Smith, an optical scientist with the University of Arizona. "The thrill of victory is so much more exciting than the agony of defeat."

    Indeed, the truth is that the planetary scientists and engineers who make up the Mars Phoenix Lander team will be biting their nails Sunday evening as they cluster around computer monitors in mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

    That's when their spacecraft, which launched to Mars last August, will finally arrive on the Red Planet.

    Everyone on the team is primed and ready to get down to business, putting the suite of scientific instruments aboard Phoenix to work analyzing the soils and permafrost of Mars' arctic tundra for signatures of life, either past or present.

    But first, they have to get the lander on the ground, and that's where the worry comes in. In fact, they have a name for it in the Mars exploration community -- "seven minutes of terror."

    Seven minutes is all it takes for a spacecraft travelling neary 13 thousand miles per hour to hit the Martian atmosphere, slam on the brakes, and reach the ground.

    During that time, onboard computers will be working at a manic pace as the spacecraft deploys its parachute, jettisons its heat shield, extends its three legs, releases the parachute, and finally fires its thrusters to bring it down for a soft landing. Hopefully.

    "Everything has to go right," said NASA Associate Administrator Ed Weiler. "You can't afford any failures."

    It's risky business. Historically, 55 percent of all Mars missions have ended in failure. And tensions will be particularly high with the Phoenix spacecraft.

    From an overall design standpoint, it is twin to the Mars Polar Lander spacecraft, and was supposed to travel to Mars in 2001 as the Mars Surveyor spacecraft. They were originally part of the "better, faster, cheaper" program, formulated by then-NASA Administrator Dan Goldin to beef up planetary exploration on a lean budget.

    But disaster struck.

    Mars Polar Lander malfunctioned during its entry and descent into Mars' atmosphere in 1999 and crashed. Technical investigations later concluded that as many as a dozen design flaws or malfunctions doomed the spacecraft.

    The failure of that mission, as well as another spacecraft called the Mars Climate Orbiter the same year, led to some soul searching at NASA. The agency put future missions on hold to rethink the "better, faster, cheaper" approach. And Mars Surveyor went to the warehouse.

    "The trouble is somebody forgot the 'better' part," said Weiler. "By pushing the faster and cheaper part so hard, engineers were forced to make decisions that weren't necessarily the best and right decisions. And that led to both the failures of the Mars Climate Orbiter and ultimately the Mars Polar Lander and eventually the entire Mars program."

    But all was not lost. In 2003, Peter Smith proposed a plan to reengineer that mothballed spacecraft and fly it on a mission to look for signatures of life in the ice and dirt of Mars far North. Mars Phoenix, literally and figuratively, rose from the ashes of Surveyor.

    Engineers set to work, testing and re-testing the onboard system to ferret out and fix all the flaws they could find. But even the lead engineer admits he worries they might have missed something.

    "We always have to be scared to death," said project manager Barry Goldstein. "The minute we lose fear is the minute that we stop looking for the next problem."

    Another aspect of the Phoenix landing that has the team worried is the landing system itself. NASA has not successfully landed a probe on Mars using landing legs and stabilizing thrusters since the Viking missions in the late 1970's.

    The other three successful Mars landings -- Pathfinder in 1997 and the Spirit and Opportunity rovers in 2004 - used massive airbags that inflated around the landing craft just before landing to cushion the impact.

    "I love airbags," said Weiler. "We got three success stories with airbags, but you don't invent science by continuing to do what you know how to do."

    Engineers did not use airbags on Phoenix because the lander is simply too big and heavy for them to work properly. And NASA will have to figure out how to land reliably with thrusters and landing legs in order to fly even larger spacecraft in the future.

    "We landed on Mars with rockets and legs twice with Viking. It's not impossible by definition, we have proof of it," said Weiler. "Humans will have to land on landing legs. Eventually we want to send humans there, obviously."

    Assuming the landing is successful, the researchers will quickly begin science operations.

    The Phoenix landing site is targeted for the far Northern plains of the Mars, near the northern polar ice cap. Data from the Mars Odyssey spacecraft indicate large quantities of ice in the area, likely in the form of permafrost, either on the surface or just barely underground.

    Phoenix is equipped with a robotic arm that can dig down and scoop up some of that ice and dirt, to look for organic chemical evidence that life once existed there, or even still exists now.

    "We are not going to be able to answer the final question of 'is there life on Mars,' " said Smith. "We will take the next important step. We'll find out if there's organic material associated with this ice in the polar regions. Ice is a preserver and if there ever were organics on Mars and they got into that ice they will still be there today."

    Indeed, "follow the water" has become the unifying theme of NASA's Mars exploration strategy.

    In 2004, the rover Opportunity found evidence that a salty sea once lapped the shores of an area near Mars' equator called Meridiani Planum. Astrobiologists, scientists who study life on other planets, generally agree that wet places are the best places to look for life.

    "There is no life on earth where there isn't water," said Weiler. "However where there's water you find life especially if you have organics, organic material and energy."

    Whether or not Phoenix will find smoking gun evidence of life on Mars is impossible to predict. But Peter Smith thinks success is within reach.

    "Well my gut tells me that life is common in the universe and probably somewhere on Mars there is organic material and perhaps even living material.

    "Whether it's in the northern plains I have no idea. But the universe is an immense place. In our Milky Way we find hundreds of planets and those are just in the nearby stars. So there must be huge astronomical numbers of planets in the universe."

    Are we really alone?

    "I suspect not," said Smith.

  • Phoenix to land on Mars ice cap

    Jean-Louis Santini, Washington
    May 24, 2008
    AFTER a nine-month journey, the Phoenix space craft is due to land on Mars on Monday morning to dig for ice in a new quest for signs of life on the red planet.

    NASA's $US420 million ($A439 million) probe will become the first spacecraft to land on the Martian arctic surface and will stay there for a three-month mission.

    After travelling 679 million kilometres, Phoenix, five metres wide by 1½ metres, will enter the top of the Martian atmosphere — slowing from 21,000 km/h to 8 km/h on a perilous descent that is planned to end with a soft landing seven minutes later.

    But the US space agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, which controls the mission, will have to wait an agonising 15 minutes for the radio signal confirming the safe landing.

    "This is not a trip to grandma's house. Putting a spacecraft safely on Mars is hard and risky," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

    Since Mars exploration began in the 1970s, 55% of probes sent to the red planet have failed to reach their destination. But the roving robots Spirit and Opportunity have roamed the Martian equator for three years, while the Mars Odyssey orbiter detected vast quantities of hydrogen on the surface in 2002, a sign that its polar regions were covered in ice.

    Three-legged Phoenix will land on the circumpolar region known as Vastitas Borealis — akin to northern Canada in Earth's latitude. Its first images will reach Earth two hours later.

    The probe will work in temperatures ranging between minus 73 and minus 33 degrees.

    NASA wants to assess whether the Martian arctic ever had conditions favourable to microbial life. The probe will also help determine if a primitive life form was ever or is still present on Mars. Phoenix has a robotic arm that can dig a metre deep.

    ■ The crew of the International Space Station could have a rough return to Earth because their re-entry capsule has the same glitch that caused problems on the last two landings, a Russian space industry source said.

    Russia's space agency would not comment on technical problems but said the Soyuz-TMA capsule was safe to carry two Russian cosmonauts and US space tourist Richard Garriott back from orbit in October.

    In the last landing in April, the Soyuz ended up about 420 kilometres off course.



    The Phoenix Mars Mission has a collaborative approach to space exploration. As the very first of NASA's Mars Scout class, Phoenix combines legacy and innovation in a framework of a true partnership: government, academia, and industry. Scout class missions are led by a scientist, known as a Principal Investigator (PI). Peter Smith of the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory serves as Phoenix's PI and is responsible for all aspects of the mission.

    The Phoenix Mission has a three-vertebrate backbone: the PI at the University of Arizona, the project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and the flight system manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems (LMSS). These three frequently communicate and ensure that decisions are understood and quickly implemented by the team.

    PI Smith has delegated project management responsibility to JPL. Barry Goldstein serves as the project manager and leads an experienced team of JPL engineers and scientists. Under Goldstein, the JPL team conducts vital functions of payload management, and flight systems and mission operations. These functions are supported by system engineering, mission assurance, and a business office. JPL also provides the interface to the Deep Space Network, sending command sequences and receiving data. During the 10-month cruise phase to Mars, JPL maintains the proper cruise trajectory to get the spacecraft to Mars by performing correcting maneuvers. Finally, JPL will lead the Phoenix spacecraft through the highly risky entry-descent-landing process. No team surpasses JPL in its ability to land spacecraft safely on the Martian surface.

    Ed Sedivy leads the Lockheed Martin engineering team in designing, constructing, and testing the Phoenix spacecraft. Sedivy was Lockheed Martin's chief engineer for developing the Mars Surveyor 2001 lander, the highly capable spacecraft that the Phoenix Mission is inheriting. The Lockheed Martin engineering team is restoring the 2001 lander to a flight-ready Phoenix spacecraft and developing enhanced spacecraft reliability through extensive testing. Throughout all phases of the mission, the Lockheed Martin team will closely monitor Phoenix's health by linking their spacecraft operations centers with those at JPL and the University of Arizona.

    From the University of Arizona, PI Smith works closely with Leslie Tamppari, project scientist at JPL, to lead an international assembly of scientists from a wide variety of academic, private, and government research institutions. This science team has experience in all previous landed Mars missions. The team's scientific background includes experience in hydrology, geology, chemistry, biology, and atmospheric science. For operations, the team is conceptually divided into four instrument groupings, each with a lead co-investigator (Co-I) scientist. The groups are not intended to be restrictive: Co-Is are expected to have a broad, cross-instrument participation driven by scientific objectives. The science team will co-locate for the first three months of the mission, to operate all the instruments and to perform the first analysis on data that may provide important answers to the following questions: (1) can the Martian arctic support life, (2) what is the history of water at the landing site, and (3) how is the Martian climate affected by polar dynamics?

    To answer these questions, Phoenix uses some of the most sophisticated and advanced technology ever sent to Mars. A robust robotic arm built by JPL digs through the soil to the water ice layer underneath, and delivers soil and ice samples to the mission's experiments. On the deck, miniature ovens and a mass spectrometer, built by the University of Arizona and University of Texas-Dallas, will provide chemical analysis of trace matter. A chemistry lab-in-a-box, assembled by JPL, will characterize the soil and ice chemistry. Imaging systems, designed by the University of Arizona, University of Neuchatel (Switzerland) (providing an atomic force microscope), Max Planck Institute (Germany) and Malin Space Science Systems, will provide an unprecedented view of Mars—spanning 12 powers of 10 in scale. The Canadian Space Agency will deliver a meteorological station, marking the first significant involvement of Canada in a mission to Mars.

    The University of Arizona will also host the Phoenix Mission's Science Operations Center (SOC) in its Tucson facility. From the SOC, the Phoenix science and engineering teams will command the lander once it is safely landed on Mars, and also, receive data as it is transmitted directly to Earth. A payload interoperability test bed (PIT) will be located with the SOC to verify an optimal integration of Phoenix's complex scientific instruments. Working together, the SOC and PIT will ensure a seamless scientific and engineering process—from science goal to instrument commands to down-linked and analyzed data.

    As with all major NASA missions, Phoenix has a comprehensive education and public outreach program. PI Smith leads the program, which is managed by the University of Arizona, and connects to outstanding educational resources in the desert southwest region, and throughout the U.S.

    This powerful team is the cornerstone to the Phoenix mission, which has high hopes to be the first mission to "touch" and examine water on Mars—ultimately, to pave the way for future robotic missions, and possibly, human exploration.

    Learn more about the Mission History or get answers to Frequently Asked Questions.

    Detailed Look at the Next Mars Lander

    By Leonard David
    Senior Space Writer
    posted: 06 December 2006
    07:37 am ET

    DENVER, Colorado-NASA's next mission to the red planet-the Phoenix Mars Lander-is a true wedding of technology with planetary exploration: Something old, something new...something borrowed and something blue.

    Named after the resilient mythological bird, Phoenix is based upon a lander that was meant to fly in 2001, but administratively mothballed by NASA. It is also outfitted with instruments that are improved variations of gear carried onboard the ill-fated Mars Polar Lander. That vehicle went astray on touchdown nearly seven years ago, a breakdown of managerial and engineering matters-sadly setting off blues for a red planet.

    Today, the flight of the Phoenix is a different story.

    Here at Lockheed Martin Space Systems-the primary industrial partner for the mission-Phoenix is receiving a lot of extra special, tender loving care. An extensive, step-by-step shakeout of the spacecraft is underway prior to its launch in August of next year. The spacecraft team is resolute in getting the unique lander safely down in May 2008 to carry out a suite of scientific chores at the icy soils near the north polar permanent ice cap of Mars.

    Phoenix is the first lander ever to furrow into the martian polar surface. Using a lengthy and beefy robotic arm, this probe is stalking subsurface water ice, along with clues to climate change on the planet and a look for cozy nooks that might support life.

    Walking the tightrope

    The $386 million Phoenix Mission is the first mission in NASA's "Scout" program, said Edward Sedivy, Lockheed Martin Program Manager for the Phoenix Flight System. Mars Scouts are competitively proposed missions intended to supplement-at relatively low cost-the core missions of NASA's Mars Exploration Program.

    "When we started Phoenix, I don't think anybody fully appreciated how much effort was required to really penetrate the designs that we inherited in 2001 and we're bringing forward in Phoenix," Sedivy told "Adapting a set of designs that were put in place for the 2001 launch opportunity to the 2007 launch opportunity for Phoenix has been a real challenge," he said.

    While spacecraft engineers took advantage of the heritage of the 2001 lander, Sedivy explained, they also mapped out changes due to today's risk paradigm of building and flying a Mars-bound craft the caliber of Phoenix.

    "So that's been really walking the tightrope," Sedivy observed.

    All is on track for Phoenix to be shipped in mid-May to Florida for its liftoff to Mars in August 2007.

    Spurious signals

    At Mars, Phoenix uses no airbags to cushion its landing. Rather, it is designed to ease-on-down to a Mars touchdown using sets of onboard thrusters [image].

    "We have not done a controlled descent soft lander that succeeded since the Viking days in 1976," Sedivy pointed out. The last try at doing so was the botched Mars Polar Lander, lost on landing back in early December 1999...and built by Lockheed Martin.

    An investigation into that mishap at Mars reported in March 2000 that the most probable cause of the failure was the generation of spurious signals when the Mars Polar Lander (MPL) legs were deployed during descent. Those spurious signals gave a false indication that the spacecraft had landed, resulting in a premature shutdown of the engines and the destruction of the lander when it tumbled onto Mars.

    The same day that the MPL failure report was issued, NASA also announced the cancellation of the planned, but MPL-like, Mars 2001 lander. 

    When the termination was announced, the 2001 lander hardware was placed in full planetary protection protocol, said Matthew Cox, Lockheed Martin Space Systems manager for Assembly, Test, and Launch Operations for Phoenix. "We treated it like it was going to Mars ever since the day that we had to stop work on it in 2000," he told

    To resurrect the stored lander for Phoenix meant a reversal of normal engineering practice, Cox said. "We actually had to start with a disassembly process," noting that most programs build up a spacecraft piece by piece, not tear it down to the bare essentials.

    Controlled descent

    Being paid added attention by mission engineers are the descent rocket engines on Phoenix-twelve in number that are clustered in three locations that rapid fire with different lengths of pulses. They must perform over the last 35 seconds, right after parachute release, allowing the craft to slow itself down for a soft landing on martian real estate.

    A special Phoenix hot-fire test program was set up at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. Those trial runs stressed the propulsion system giving engineers vital insight about the structural and operational integrity of the Phoenix spacecraft.

    Cox said that the lengthy test activity-with valves opening and closing, hydrazine fuel coursing through spacecraft plumbing under high pressure, along with the chatter and vibration created by thrusting rocket engines-has bolstered confidence that the motors for controlled descent of Phoenix can function as billed.

    The hot-firings of the Phoenix terminal descent propulsion system proved highly beneficial, Sedivy added, to "learn what we needed to learn." The tests helped tackle and mitigate a top risk in reaching Mars safe and sound.

    First night

    Indeed, gently setting Phoenix down on Mars is tricky. There are lots of onboard real-time thinking needed during entry, descent and landing, such as: Handling winds when on main parachute, turning on broad-beam radar hardware, warming up engines and aligning center of mass with a velocity vector. Phoenix must then make a gravity turn for pointing outstretched legs toward Mars...while sensing where the Sun is for proper orientation of solar arrays when unfurled on the planet.

    The hydrazine-fed engines on Phoenix are turned off when sensors located on the footpads of the lander detect touchdown.

    Phoenix as well as controllers back on Earth will literally wait for the dust to settle-for as much as a half-hour-likely kicked up into the thin Mars atmosphere by the pulsing descent engines.

    Sedivy said the lander will fan out its dual solar arrays to produce power. Also, Phoenix uplinks its health status to a Mars orbiter flying over the landing zone-the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter or the Mars Odyssey, then hunker down for the first night.

    "Surviving that first night is what we need to be focused on," Sedivy added. "If we can, we'd like to get a panoramic image [of the landing area] the first day."

    Ground truth

    Phoenix is hurled toward Mars via a Delta 2 booster from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. At the moment, the precise arctic landing spot on Mars where the craft will plant its legs is still being pondered.

    "Finding a benign landing site that is relatively free of rock hazards would be a beautiful thing," Sedivy pointed out. There's a modest-14 inches (35 centimeters)-of clearance to the base of the lander.

    But early camera sweeps by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) of possible Phoenix landing zones have produced some nail-biting within the community of mission engineers and scientists.

    MRO's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) can produce "ground truth" images showing boulders down to about 20-inches (0.5 meters) across. That sharp-shooting skill by MRO has already yielded unnerving truth, explained Peter Smith of the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson. He is Principal Investigator and Project Leader of the Phoenix Mission.

    HiRISE imagery near a Phoenix landing area under consideration revealed small ridges on either side of troughs. Small rocks and occasional larger boulders could also be seen, with some rocks protruding above the surface terrain casting shadows. Additional imagery of prospective Phoenix touchdown zones will help select the true landing site.

    "So far many of the images have small patches of boulder fields with boulders large enough and dense enough to be very worrisome," Smith told via email. "We are currently searching for safe landing sites and have no reason to believe that we won't find them," he added.

    Sedivy said that portions of the baseline landing site for Phoenix are clearly rockier than anybody was anticipating. But he concluded: "The good news is that there is a lot of acreage that's scientifically acceptable for the Phoenix objectives. So that's a good thing."

    NASA's Phoenix Lander heading for Mars

    CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Aug. 3, 2007 (UPI) -- NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander is preparing for launch Saturday from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on a voyage to Mars.

    The robotic explorer, which is equipped to dig up and analyze icy soil on Mars, was scheduled to liftoff early Saturday, NASA said Friday in a release.

    A Delta II launch vehicle will carry the Phoenix Mars Lander into Earth orbit and then give a push to send it to Mars, with an expected landing of May 25, 2008.

    Phoenix will travel 422 million miles in an outward arc from Earth to Mars to determine whether icy soil on far northern Mars has conditions that have ever been suitable for life.

    Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson said instruments on Phoenix are "specially designed to find evidence for periodic melting of the ice and to assess whether this large region represents a habitable environment for Martian microbes."

    Copyright 2007 by United Press International. All Rights Reserved.

    Mars Express will monitor Phoenix Lander

    PARIS, Aug. 1 (UPI) -- The European Space Agency announced Wednesday its Mars Express spacecraft will monitor NASA's Phoenix lander as it makes its way to Mars.

    The ESA said the plan sets an example of international cooperation and interplanetary networking.

    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said Phoenix, which lifts off Saturday, is to land on Mars next spring in a search of conditions favorable for past or present life.

    At NASA's request, the ESA's Mars Express spacecraft will monitor Phoenix's descent and landing. The critical part of the descent lasts about 13 minutes, during which the probe will transmit a continuous stream of information to two of NASA's satellites already orbiting the Red Planet.

    NASA requested the ESA use its Mars Express spacecraft that's been in orbit around Mars since 2003 to also monitor Phoenix's descent and landing.

    The ESA said Mars Express was selected since, in principle, its elliptical orbit makes it possible for the spacecraft to have a continuous view of the lander and to communicate with it for longer periods of time.

    The ESA said it's possible its spacecraft will continue to communicate with Phoenix during its entire 90-day mission.

    Copyright 2007 by United Press International. All Rights Reserved.


    NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander in Good Health After Launch
    By Tariq Malik
    and Dave Mosher
    posted: 4 August 2007
    12:37 p.m. ET


    CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- A NASA probe bound to dig into the icy Arctic Circle of Mars is in good health after a picturesque predawn launch, mission managers said Saturday.

    The Phoenix Mars Lander is precisely on target for its 422 million-mile (679 million-kilometer) trip to the red planet following an early morning liftoff today from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

    "We have a happy spacecraft," said Ed Sedivy, spacecraft program manager for Phoenix's builder Lockheed Martin, during a post-launch briefing here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, adding that telemetry from the probe was spot on. "At that moment, everybody knew that it was the homerun that they were looking for."

    A United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket blasted Phoenix into space at 5:26:34 a.m. EDT (0926:34 GMT), leaving a ghostly contrail of exhaust as the spacecraft left Earth behind. The lander is due to land on the flat arctic plains near Mars' north pole on May 25, 2008.

    "It was the most beautiful thing I've seen," said Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith, of the University of Arizona, of the liftoff. "This cloud turned into what looked like wings and a beak and a long tail and looked amazingly just like a phoenix bird, the message to me was: Phoenix bird has risen! And it has. We're on our way to Mars."

    Phoenix is now speeding through space at about 12,300 miles per hour (19,794 kph) - almost its top speed - relative to Earth, and should pass beyond the moon's orbit by about 3:00 p.m. EDT (1900 GMT) this afternoon, mission managers said.  

    The 772-pound (350-kilogram) spacecraft's launch was so precise that Phoenix was able to conserve about 22 pounds (10 kilograms) of precious propellant, which will add some maneuvering flexibility once the probe prepares for its Mars descent next year.

    NASA's $420 million Phoenix mission is aimed at an icy, flat region of northern Mars known as Vastitas Borealis. There, the lander is expected to use its eight-foot (2.4-meter) robotic arm like a backhoe to carve out samples of the surrounding martian soil and ice. The samples will be analyzed by onboard ovens, cameras, microscopes and a wet chemistry laboratory to determine their chemical makeup.

    Researchers are hoping to learn whether the icy terrain has preserved any organic molecules or compounds within the martian soil, which may prove useful in determining whether the area may have once been habitable for microbial life. Phoenix also carries a laser ranging and detection tool and other instruments mounted to a meteorology mast to study the arctic weather on Mars.

     Much of Phoenix's structure and seven-suite science package were developed for or recycled from NASA's canceled Mars Surveyor 2001 Lander and the ill-fated Mars Polar Lander, which was lost during its 1999 descent to the martian surface. Phoenix scientists hope their probe will recover some science lost from the 1999 mission's failure.

    "It's a great day for America, it's a great day to continue exploration," NASA's Mars program director Doug McCuistion said after the successful Saturday launch. Staff Writer Dave Mosher reported from Cape Canaveral

    Florida. Staff

    Washington Post Staff Writer

    The spacecraft Phoenix landed safely on Mars yesterday, making a hazardous soft landing on the planet's far north with all its scientific systems apparently intact and ready to begin an intensive new search for life beyond Earth.

    After counting down the last stage of the descent by hundreds and then tens of nerve-racking meters, officials at Mission Control in Pasadena, Calif., announced that "Phoenix has landed," setting off a joyous celebration by the mission team.

    "It could not have gone better, not in my dreams," said Barry Goldstein, NASA's project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. The touchdown, at about 8 p.m. Eastern time, was the first successful soft landing on the Red Planet -- using a parachute and thrusters rather than protective air bags -- since the twin Viking missions in 1976. In all, six of 11 similar attempts by the United States, Russia and England ended in failure, so the Phoenix team awaited with enormous apprehension the outcome of the spacecraft's approach and landing.

    Phoenix plunged into the thin Martian atmosphere traveling at more than 12,000 mph. Over the next seven minutes, friction -- which raised the temperature on the heat shield to 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit -- slowed it enough to deploy the parachute. About half a mile from the surface, and with only seconds remaining before touching down, 12 small rocket thrusters fired to slow the lander's descent speed to 5 mph. Before it landed, however, Phoenix had to orient itself toward the sun to ensure that its solar panels could pick up enough light to generate the power it will need on the surface.

    Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, lead investigator for the mission, said earlier that the entry would amount to "seven minutes of terror" for the scientists.

    Like the Viking landers, Phoenix is designed to look for organic material and other signs that life has existed on Mars, or could exist on the planet. Unlike the two rovers that have been exploring the Martian surface for nearly five years, Phoenix is built to stay in one place and use its robotic arm to dig into the soil and ice. The vehicle is equipped with several miniature chemistry labs to analyze the material it digs up.

    The lander touched down further north on Mars than any previous lander. NASA scientists think the frozen water on or near the surface may tell them whether the minerals and organic compounds needed for life as we know it exist, or have ever existed, on the planet.

    Throughout the descent and landing, NASA engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory were receiving data on the spacecraft's progress 15 minutes after events occurred -- helpless to intervene if anything went wrong. Transmissions were sent from Phoenix to the orbiting Mars Odyssey spacecraft, then relayed back to Earth at the speed of light over the 171 million miles between the planets.

    Phoenix, named for the mythological bird reborn from its ashes, was assembled largely from parts manufactured for other spacecraft. After two Mars mission failures in 1999, the space agency scrapped a lander mission planned for 2000 and recycled some of the hardware.

    One of those failures was the last time NASA tried a soft landing on Mars. The Mars Polar Lander was angling for the south pole when it prematurely shut off its engine and crashed to the surface below. The other failure involved a spacecraft that was supposed to go into orbit around Mars; NASA lost contact with it during the approach, and its fate is unknown. The 900-pound, three-legged Phoenix lander, which cost $457 million, traveled a circuitous path of 423 million miles over almost 10 months to reach Mars. A rocket-and-parachute landing system -- like that of the Viking landers of 32 years ago -- was chosen because it allowed NASA to better pinpoint the landing location. The system is also a prototype of one that NASA hopes will one day land astronauts on Mars. The later Mars Pathfinder and the two robot rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, which have been exploring the planet's equatorial region, landed using air bags to cushion the impact. Air bags are not practical for heavier craft such as the Phoenix because the weight of bigger bags reduces the amount of scientific equipment that can be carried.

    The Phoenix was targeted at the north polar region because that is where some form of water (in the form of ice) is most likely to be present, and scientists believe that a form of water is necessary for life. They are convinced that surface water flowed on Mars billions of years ago, a conclusion reached by studying geologic features of the Martian landscape. Today, conditions on Mars do not allow for liquid water, in large part because the atmosphere is only 1 percent as dense as Earth's.

    In 2002, however, the Mars Odyssey orbiter discovered that large amounts of water ice lay just beneath the surface in the permafrost that covers much of far northern Mars. Scientists say the region, which is notably flat and smooth, may have once been the bottom of a large ocean.

    They are also intrigued that the surface shows polygonal patterns remarkably similar to some seen in Antarctica. Scientists speculate that they could be the result of cycles of freezing and thawing.

    In addition to its sophisticated cameras, soil retrievers and mini-laboratories, Phoenix carried on its journey a mini-DVD created by the Planetary Society called "Visions of Mars." It holds a library of science fiction stories and art, as well as the names of more than 250,000 people.

    The DVD, featuring the likes of Carl Sagan, Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury, is made of material designed to last for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

    Mars lander to get arm-moving order a day late

    By ARTHUR H. ROTSTEIN, Associated Press Writer Wed May 28, 2008

    TUCSON, Ariz. - A day after an orbiter's radio shutdown blocked NASA from telling its newly planted Phoenix Mars lander what to do, orders were on the way to get its robotic arm moving.

    A UHF radio on the Mars Reconnaissance orbiter turned off Tuesday, preventing it from relaying the command from NASA to the lander to begin to unfurl its 8-foot robotic arm.

    Mission leaders said the incident caused a one-day delay in preparations for getting the spacecraft ready to begin its key scientific experimentation: digging up icy soil samples for testing from its location in Mars' northern arctic region.

    Fuk Li, manager of the Mars exploration program for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said the glitch may have resulted from a cosmic ray.

    But he and others said the problem was minor, and by the end of the day Tuesday the orbiter's radio had resumed working, relaying Phoenix's images of the Martian landscape back to earth.

    The orbiter is one of two circling Mars that is being used in conjunction with the lander's mission. Even with the Mars Reconnaissance orbiter's glitch fixed, officials were sticking with their plan to use the Mars Odyssey, the second orbiter, to relay commands to Phoenix during its morning orbital pass on Wednesday, lab spokeswoman Veronica McGregor said.

    The lander has delighted scientists with the first-ever peek of the planet's northern arctic region since it descended onto the Martian landscape Sunday. The terrain where Phoenix settled is relatively flat with polygon-shaped patterns in the ground likely caused by the expansion and contraction of underground ice.

    Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, the mission's principal researcher, and his colleague Alfred McEwen, who operates the camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, said photos taken since the landing show that Phoenix is at the edge of a trough that will make an ideal place for digging.

    Smith said plans had called for maneuvers Tuesday to unhook the lander's 8-foot robotic arm from a protective sleeve that held it in place.

    The arm is at the heart of the lander's scientific functions during its three-month experiment.

    Phoenix will dig into the soil with the arm to reach ice believed to be buried inches to a foot deep. It's part of the effort to study whether the site could have supported primitive life.

    Among the things it will look for is whether the ice melted in Mars' history and whether the soil samples contain traces of organic compounds, one of the building blocks of life.

    Smith said it would be "hard to conceive" that there isn't ice beneath the lander, given that the landscape is 80 percent ice for the first meter of ground.

    Images taken from the Reconnaissance Orbiter's camera showed the lander on the ground with its two solar panels deployed, the spacecraft's jettisoned heat shield and its parachute.

    Another series of photos taken by the lander's camera displayed the surrounding landscape and low hills about nine miles away on the horizon.

    Weather information gathered by the mission's Canadian Space Agency team showed temperatures ranged between minus 22 degrees and minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit — "milder than they could be in other places" — Smith said.


    ICE UNDERFOOT? NASA's Phoenix Lander is on a mission to find ice in the martian arctic. Mission accomplished? Without even digging into the ground, Phoenix may have already spotted a slab of ice directly underfoot:

    This contrast-enhanced image was taken on May 29th by Phoenix's Robotic Arm Camera (RAC). Mission scientists believe the exhaust from Phoenix's descent engine has blown off a layer of topsoil to reveal a portion of frozen water beneath.

    On the other hand, it could be a rock. "We'll test the two possibilities by getting more data, including color data, from the robotic arm camera," says Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis, a co-investigator for Phoenix's arm. "If the hard features are ice, they should become brighter [in the days ahead] because atmospheric water vapor will collect as new frost on the ice." (Update: Evidence is mounting that the features beneath Phoenix are truly ice: more

      This image from NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander's Robotic Arm Camera (RAC) shows material from the Martian surface captured by the Robotic Arm (RA) scoop during its first test dig and dump on the seventh Martian day of the mission, or Sol 7 (June 1, 2008). The test sample shown was taken from the digging area informally known as "Knave of Hearts."

    Yesterday, Phoenix's 7.7-foot robotic arm reached out and took its first scoop of Mars. A camera attached to the arm snapped this picture of the harvest:

    Scientists speculate that the white patches on the right side of the image could possibly be ice or salts that precipitated into the soil. Scientists also speculate that this white material is probably the same material seen in previous images from under the lander in which an upper surface of an ice table was observed. The color for this image was acquired by illuminating the RA scoop with a set of red, green, and blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

    The Phoenix Mission is led by the University of Arizona, Tucson, on behalf of NASA. Project management of the mission is by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. Spacecraft development is by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver.

    Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Max Planck Institute

    Note the bright white material highlighting the red crumbly soil. "We don't know what this material is yet," says University of Arizona's Pat Woida, a senior engineer on the Phoenix team. It could be "ice, a salt or something new."

    This first scoop was just a test, a light workout for the newly extended arm, and the contents were dumped back onto the ground. Soon, however, similar samples will be drawn inside the lander for analysis by microscopes, electrical and thermal probes, a mass spectrometer and a wet chemistry lab. The mystery material may yet be known. Stay tuned for updates.

    3D BONUS: Like a human being, Phoenix's stereo camera has a right and left eye for seeing things in three dimensions. Using images from the two points of view, graphic artist Patrick Vantuyne of Belgium has created some superb anaglyphs of the lander's surroundings. Put on your 3D glasses and behold: Mars Yeti (Phoenix's arm makes a first impression on the Red Planet); One small step... (one of the lander's three feet); Vines (the camera's mast casts a criss-crossed shadow on the ground).

    June 5, 2008

    Lander returns close-up pictures of Martian dust

    Lander returns close-up pictures of Martian dust This image from NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander's Robotic Arm Camera (RAC) shows material from the Martian surface captured by the Robotic Arm (RA) scoop during its first test dig and dump on the seventh Martian day of the mission June 1, 2008 and released by NASA June 2. REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University/Handout

    By Dan Whitcomb

    LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Phoenix lander has returned the highest-resolution pictures ever taken of dust and sand on the surface of another planet as it prepares for its primary mission of searching for signs of life on Mars, NASA scientists said on Thursday.

    The pictures were taken through an optical microscope and showed particles -- some as small as one-tenth the diameter of a human hair -- that were collected on a slide when Phoenix touched down on May 25 at the arctic circle of the Red Planet, kicking up dust from the surface.

    "We have images showing the diversity of mineralogy on Mars at a scale that is unprecedented in planetary exploration," Michael Hecht of the U.S. space agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said at a media briefing.

    One of the tiny grains shown in the pictures, taken largely to test the lander's instruments, was clear and whitish but the scientists said it was a mineral -- possibly salt -- and not likely ice, which they are eager to find as it is considered key to enabling life on the planet.

    Other particles were reddish brown like the Mars surface or dark and glossy.

    "What we're seeing in the microscope is almost certainly not ice," said Tom Pike, Phoenix geology team leader and a professor at Imperial College London, because a particle of ice that small would have melted before it could be photographed.

    He said salt deposits, which are often found around ice, also would be intriguing to the Phoenix team.

    Pike said the microscopic photos were never intended to seek out ice or other signs of water and life on Mars, and that the primary tool for that is a robotic arm.

    The lander was again given commands to collect its first soil sample from the Martian surface after a communication glitch with an orbiting spacecraft delayed that experiment for a day.

    Initial tests by the robotic arm scoop have uncovered a layer 1.5 inches deep near the landing site that intrigues NASA officials and they hope to study samples from that spot.

    Phoenix's robotic camera has also sent back images of what appears to be exposed ice under the lander. But that area -- dubbed "Snow Queen" -- cannot be analyzed because it is out of the reach of the scoop.

    The $420-million craft touched down on the arctic circle of Mars after a 10-month, 420-million-mile (680-million-km) journey from Earth.

    NASA has searched Mars for the past decade for signs of water and conditions that might have supported life. It has used a fleet of orbiters and a pair of rovers on the planet.

    The detection of subsurface water on Mars in 2002 by the Odyssey spacecraft prompted the Phoenix mission.

    (Editing by Vicki Allen)

    PHOENIX UPDATE: Phoenix's oven is full of martian soil. For days, the clumpy red dirt had been stuck on a screen at the oven's door while engineers tried a variety of tricks to coax it onward. On June 10th, with little warning, the soil sifted through. "There's something very unusual about this soil," says Peter Smith of the University of Arizona. "We're interested in learning what sort of chemical and mineral activity has caused the particles to clump together." In the days ahead, Phoenix's mass spectrometer will "sniff" fumes from the oven and report the soil's composition. Stay tuned.

    It is Phoenix's backshell, which held the parachute as Phoenix descended through the atmosphere. Just before jet-assisted touchdown, the backshell and 'chute were discarded and they landed some 300 meters downrange of Phoenix. "The parachute is not visible, probably because of the bumpy terrain," says graphic artist Patruck Vantuyne who created the anaglyph by combining right- and left-eye images from Phoenix's stereo camera. The complete panorama is a must-see; stare a while for full effect.

    more anaglyphs: Arctic Vista, Mars Yeti, One small step..., Vines, Scoop Two.


    NASA's 420-million-dollar lander has also possibly located ice and is half way to offering scientists on Earth a 360-degree view from its landing site in the Martian polar region, with rocks and hills fading into the dusty distance.

    "We're getting about twice the data volume we were told to expect," said Peter Smith, Phoenix principal investigator at the University of Arizona.

    The team is hoping to find evidence of the existence of water and life-supporting organic minerals in the polar region, on the basis that the similar areas on Earth preserve traces of climate change and signs of life.

    For the past week, Phoenix's robotic arm, which looks like a back-hoe, has been digging into the soil around it and uncovered a bright surface about 2-2.5 inches (5-6 centimeters) below the soil that could be ice.

    "Not everybody's sure that this is ice. There's been some debate within our team," said Smith. "The debate centers around perhaps there's a salt layer above the ice, which would be very bright and white also."

    The team was pretty sure they would find ice, but not whether they had already found it, he explained during a televised briefing in Tuscon, Arizona, adding that scraping further into the surface was "really a high priority."

    Some of the soil collected so far was be "very clumpy, its very sticky," Smith said, and initially got stuck on one of Phoenix's oven-like instruments, the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer (TEGA). Tests are now underway.

    Other finer particles meanwhile have been collected in another testing instrument and reveal the history of soil on Mars, going from black glassy particles to more weathered ones, Phoenix team member Tom Pike said.

    "What we're looking at here is a potted history of Martian soil," he said.

    He described "black glassy particles that over millions, even billions of years have been slowly weathering down, becoming iron-enriched which gives the organic material its characteristic (red) color, and we're seeing that process captured on the variety of particles that we're looking at."


    This hard bright material is really water ice and not some other substance," said Phoenix Principal Investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson, during a Friday news briefing to announce the confirmation of water ice.

    "The truth we're looking for is not just looking at ice. It is in finding out the minerals, chemicals and hopefully the organic materials associated with these discoveries," said Smith


    The mission has the right instruments for analyzing soil and ice to determine whether the local environment just below the surface of far-northern Mars has ever been favorable for microbial life. Key factors are whether the water ever becomes available as a liquid and whether organic compounds are present that could provide chemical building blocks and energy for life. Phoenix landed on May 25 for a Mars surface mission planned to last for three months.


    "These latest developments are a major accomplishment and validation of the Mars Program's 'follow-the-water' exploration framework," said Doug McCuistion at NASA Headquarters, Washington, director of the space agency's Mars Program. "This specific discovery is the result of an outstanding team working with a robust spacecraft that has allowed them to work ahead of their original science schedule."


    The key new evidence is that chunks of bright material exposed by digging on June 15 and still present on June 16 had vaporized by June 19. "This tells us we've got water ice within reach of the arm, which means we can continue this investigation with the tools we brought with us," said Mark Lemmon of Texas A&M University, College Station, lead scientist for Phoenix's Surface Stereo Imager camera.


    On the Net:

    Phoenix Mars:

    NASA Scientists Confirm Mars Has Water

    For the last ten years these files have claimed there is water and life on Mars.

    Nasa scientists have revealed that the Phoenix Mars Lander has sent back the first definitive proof that there is water ice hidden beneath the surface of the planet.

    NASA reports twenty days of scratching its way through the Martian top soil, the spacecraft uncovered a bright white layer just two inches below the surface. Four days after the white layer was first exposed to sunlight above, photographs taken by the lander's on board camera showed the white surface had disappeared. This proves, the scientists say, that the white layer was not salt as had been previously thought possible because it was melting. "It is with great pride and a lot of joy that I announce that we have found proof that this hard bright material is really water ice and not some other substance," said Peter Smith, from the University of Arizona, who is the principal investigator on the Phoenix mission. "We have found the proof that we've been seeking."

    Chemical analysis of soil containing the white layer are still to be completed, but there is no doubt in the minds of Nasa scientists that they will further confirm the presence of water. Water generally means there is life as discovered by the Viking Lander in 1976

    1. The 36 landscape photos from SOL 13 for June 8, 2008 are all relatively low-pixel-count photos - all of which seem to be slightly out-of-focus, and those which I have downloaded have all been available in JPEG only - which lend themselves to only a small degree of enlargement at which point "pixilation" effects take over and render the scene useless for any kind of meaningful study. Further, are only black-and-white images available from the lander, or are there color photos available elsewhere?

    2. Most of the photos posted to the NASA web site for the 1976 Viking missions are of strikingly good quality, and are available in both TIFF and GIFF formats, and all seem to have been focused very well. Sections of most of those photos can be enlarged as much as 10X and still show fine detail of the items of interest with no pixilation effects at any level of magnification. And many of the photographs taken by the landers - and all the photos taken by the orbiters - are in good color (albeit modified before release to make most everything have a rust-brown color to it (even the sky).

    3. QUESTION: How does it happen that - after 32 years of improvement in every aspect of imaging techniques and associated electronics - the photos of Mars from the Phoenix Mission made available to the public are of such lesser quality and usefulness? Are better quality photos to be made available as the Phoenix mission develops?

    Your assistance in this area of inquiry is appreciated. Thanks to John E. Combest

    Graphic artist Patrick Vantunye of Belgium created the 3D anaglyph by combining right- and left-eye images from Phoenix's stereo camera. It shows a rock near the Mars lander's feet seemingly pushed some distance through the dusty soil. "It reminds me of the moving rocks of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley," says Vantuyne. Long held to be a mystery, those Death Valley rocks are now thought to travel by means of wind propulsion, skidding along a desert floor momentarily slick after rainstorms. What moved this Mars rock? Possibilities include Phoenix's landing thrusters, martian wind, a nudge from Phoenix's robotic arm, and of course the unknown.

    NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander Surface Stereo Imager shows four trenches
    dug by robotic arm where definite H2O ice has been discovered. Image courtesy NASA.

    August 1, 2008 - Phoenix Lander “Tastes Water” On Mars.

    First confirmation of H2O water ice. 
    Where there is water, there might be life, if even microbial.

    “We have water. We've seen evidence for this water ice before
    in observations by the Mars Odyssey orbiter and in disappearing chunks
    observed by Phoenix last month, but this is the first time Martian water
    has been touched and tasted.”
      - William Boynton, Ph.D.,
    Univ. of Arizona and TEGA Lead Scientist

    NASA:  “Laboratory tests aboard NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander have identified water in a soil sample. The lander's robotic arm delivered the sample Wednesday, July 30, 2008, to an instrument that identifies vapors produced by the heating of samples. With enticing results so far and the spacecraft in good shape, NASA also announced operational funding for the mission will extend through September 30. The original prime mission of three months ends in late August. The mission extension adds five weeks to the 90 days of the prime mission.”