Mars Lander prepares for digging mission

PASADENA Scientists analyzed the first pictures sent from the Phoenix Mars Lander.

"You can see the lander's foot has actually slid a little bit. It seems like when we came down with a slight horizontal velocity we slid a little bit on the surface," said Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson.

The Phoenix Lander touched down softly on Martian soil Sunday after a 10-month journey.

More than half of NASA's Mars missions have failed. The last time NASA tried a soft landing on Mars and it was a disaster. The sister craft to Phoenix, the Mars Polar Lander, crashed in 1999.

This time the Lander executed the maneuver almost flawlessly.

"We achieved our first major goal of the mission which was to establish our two way communication with both of our reconnaissance vehicles," said Barry Goldstein, project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The reconnaissance vehicles that are orbiting the red planet are allowing scientists in Pasadena to exchange information and send commands to the Phoenix Lander.

Scientists are now able, for the first time, to see a glimpse of the high northern latitudes of Mars. They are looking for the chemical building blocks of life.

"It is the liquid water that we are looking for. We know that there is ice there -- that has already been discovered and published six years ago. Does the ice melt is the real question that is driving our science," said Chris McKay, a NASA Planetary Scientist.

The polygon-cracked terrain where the lander now sits is believed to hold a reservoir of ice underneath. Scientist will soon begin the 90-day mission of digging with the Phoenix's 8-foot-long arm. They are hoping to determine whether life on Earth is unique or if life just naturally happens where ever conditions are right.

"If we can show that right here in our solar system, life started twice, independently, then that would tell us, I think conclusively, that life is common in the universe," said McKay.

During its primary three-month mission, Phoenix will study whether the ice melted in the past at the landing site and probe the soil for evidence of organic compounds. It cannot directly detect fossils or living organisms.

The $420 million mission is led by University of Arizona and managed by JPL.


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