The Phoenix Spacecraft successfully landed on Mars Sunday night. Its mission is to look for water and the potential habitability of life in the northern latitudes of the red planet near its polar cap for the next 3 months. This is the first soft landing on Mars in 32 years, and the third in history since the Vikings landed in 1976.
Visit the Jet Propulsion Laboratory website for latest news. The landing was confirmed Sunday night, and spacecraft health was confirmed shortly afterward. A suite of dozens of first images of this part of Mars was published at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Lab which manages the mission.
The lander is equipped with a robotic arm which will soon begin digging into the soil for evidence of ice. The diggings will be transported to on-board instruments that will analyze the chemistry of the soil and ice with much better resolution than provided by the Viking landers.
An image of the parachuted descent was taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that arrived at Mars last May 25 and has already sent 55 terabytes of data back to Earth. MRO’s high-resolution camera later pinpointed Phoenix sitting on the surface.
These news sources also reported the landing: Space.com, the BBC News, and National Geographic.
The mission proceeds on the assumption that if conditions do not rule life out, then life will evolve. Despite the dubious assumption, any achievement in space this demanding and complex is worthy of celebration and appreciation.
This lander is not capable of discovering life. It will only try to find if water and organics exist under the surface. Marsologists already know that the radiation environment is too hostile to expect anything walking or crawling around. It will take future missions like the Mars Science Laboratory, being prepped for a 2009 launch, to be capable of detecting life. Optimism is bound to outrun empiricism, so we will try to help sort out the claims from the data as the mission continues.