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In a first, probe to focus on Martian ice

July 9, 2007
Courtesy NASA
and World Science staff

NASA’s next Mars mis­sion will be the first to spe­cif­ic­ally ze­ro in on fro­zen wa­ter—the cen­ter of sci­en­tists’ hopes for de­tect­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of past, pre­s­ent or fu­ture life on Mars.

Artist's con­cept of Phoe­nix lan­der on Mars. (Cour­te­sy NA­SA/JPL/UA/Lock­heed Mar­tin)


In­stead of rov­ing to hills or craters as past probes have done, NASA’s Phoe­nix Mars Lan­der is to claw in­to the icy soil of the Red Plan­et’s north­ern plains. The ro­bot would in­ves­t­i­gate wheth­er the ice might per­i­od­ic­ally melt enough to sus­tain mi­cro­bi­al life. 

To ac­com­plish that and oth­er goals, Phoe­nix will car­ry in­stru­ments nev­er be­fore used on Mars. But first it must launch from Flor­i­da dur­ing a three-week pe­ri­od be­gin­ning Aug. 3, then sur­vive a risky de­scent and land­ing on Mars next spring.

“Our ‘fol­low the wa­ter’ strat­e­gy for ex­plor­ing Mars has yielded a string of dra­mat­ic dis­cov­er­ies in re­cent years about the his­to­ry of wa­ter on a plan­et where si­m­i­lar­i­ties with Earth were much great­er in the past than they are to­day,” said Doug Mc­Cuis­tion, di­rec­tor of the Mars Ex­plora­t­ion Pro­gram at NASA Head­quar­ters, Wash­ing­ton. “Phoe­nix will com­ple­ment our stra­te­gic ex­plora­t­ion of Mars by be­ing our first at­tempt to ac­tu­ally tou­ch and an­a­lyze Mar­tian wa­ter… in the form of bur­ied ice.”

NASA’s Mars Od­ys­sey or­biter found ev­i­dence in 2002 to sup­port the­o­ries that large ar­eas of Mars, in­clud­ing the arc­tic plains, have fro­zen wa­ter with­in an ar­m’s reach of the sur­face. Phoe­nix is to “ex­am­ine the his­to­ry of the ice by meas­ur­ing how liq­uid wa­ter has mod­i­fied the chem­is­try and min­er­al­o­gy of the soil,” said Pe­ter Smith, the Phoe­nix prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor at the Un­ivers­ity of Ar­i­zo­na, Tuc­son.

“In ad­di­tion, our in­stru­ments can as­sess wheth­er this po­lar en­vi­ron­ment is a hab­it­a­ble zone for prim­i­tive mi­crobes. To com­plete the sci­en­tif­ic char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion of the site, Phoe­nix will mon­i­tor po­lar weath­er and the in­ter­ac­tion of the at­mos­phere with the sur­face.”

With its so­lar pan­els un­furled, the lan­der is about 18 feet (5.5 me­ters) wide and 5 feet (1.5 me­ters) long. A ro­botic arm 7.7 feet long will dig to the icy lay­er, thought to lie a few inches down. A cam­era and probe on the arm will ex­am­ine soil and any ice. The arm would lift sam­ples to two in­stru­ments on the lan­der’s deck. One will use heat­ing to check for sub­stances such as wa­ter and carbon-based chem­i­cals that are build­ing blocks for life. The oth­er would an­a­lyze soil chem­is­try.

“Land­ing safely on Mars is dif­fi­cult no mat­ter what meth­od you use,” said Barry Gold­stein, proj­ect man­ag­er for Phoe­nix at NASA’s Je­t Pro­pul­sion Lab­o­r­a­to­ry in Pas­a­de­na, Ca­lif. “Our team has been test­ing the sys­tem re­lent­lessly since 2003” to iden­ti­fy and ad­dress vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. Re­search­ers eval­u­at­ing land­ing sites have used ob­serva­t­ions from Mars or­biters to find the safest places where the mis­sion’s goals can be met, they said; the lead­ing can­di­date is a broad val­ley with few boul­ders at a lat­i­tude equiv­a­lent to north­ern Alas­ka.


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NASA’s next Mars mission will be the first to specifically zero in on frozen water—the seat of scientists’ hopes for detecting the possibility of past, present or future life on Mars. Instead of roving to hills or craters as past probes have done, NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander is to claw into the icy soil of the Red Planet’s northern plains. The robot would investigate whether the ice might periodically melt enough to sustain microbial life. To accomplish that and other goals, Phoenix will carry instruments never before used on Mars. But first it must launch from Florida during a three-week period beginning Aug. 3, then survive a risky descent and landing on Mars next spring. “Our ‘follow the water’ strategy for exploring Mars has yielded a string of dramatic discoveries in recent years about the history of water on a planet where similarities with Earth were much greater in the past than they are today,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters, Washington. “Phoenix will complement our strategic exploration of Mars by being our first attempt to actually touch and analyze Martian water… in the form of buried ice.” NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter found evidence in 2002 to support theories that large areas of Mars, including the arctic plains, have water ice within an arm’s reach of the surface. Phoenix is to “examine the history of the ice by measuring how liquid water has modified the chemistry and mineralogy of the soil,” said Peter Smith, the Phoenix principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “In addition, our instruments can assess whether this polar environment is a habitable zone for primitive microbes. To complete the scientific characterization of the site, Phoenix will monitor polar weather and the interaction of the atmosphere with the surface.” With its solar panels unfurled, the lander is about 18 feet (5.5 meters) wide and 5 feet (1.5 meters) long. A robotic arm 7.7 feet long will dig to the icy layer, thought to lie a few inches down. A camera and probe on the arm will examine soil and any ice. The arm would lift samples to two instruments on the lander’s deck. One will use heating to check for substances such as water and carbon-based chemicals that are building blocks for life. The other would analyze soil chemistry. “Landing safely on Mars is difficult no matter what method you use,” said Barry Goldstein, project manager for Phoenix at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “Our team has been testing the system relentlessly since 2003” to identify and address vulnerabilities. Researchers evaluating landing sites have used observations from Mars orbiters to find the safest places where the mission’s goals can be met, they said; the leading candidate is a broad valley with few boulders at a latitude equivalent to northern Alaska.