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The Phoenix Has Landed

NASA pulls off complicated landing on Mars' north pole

By Dante A. Ciampaglia | May 27 , 2008
An artist's imagining of the Phoenix Mars Lander on the Martian surface at sunset. (Photo: JPL/NASA)
An artist's imagining of the Phoenix Mars Lander on the Martian surface at sunset. (Photo: JPL/NASA)

Tension gripped the mission control room in Pasadena, California. NASA scientists and engineers didn't know what was going to happen. A mission like this has never before succeeded.

Ten months ago, the space agency launched the $420 million Phoenix Mars Lander mission. The goal: Travel 422 million miles to Mars's north pole region. Once there, dig into the ground and look for ice.

If Phoenix discovers ice, the mission could lead to very exciting—and important—discoveries. Did water ever really flow on Mars? Is water still there? Did life exist on Mars? Is there anything living there now?

As Phoenix descended to its landing zone, radio contact was lost. NASA personnel held their breaths.

"Touchdown signal detected," the lead communications officer on the mission announced at 7:53 p.m. Eastern Time.

Cheers erupted at mission control. Phoenix had landed safely.

As the night went on, officials had more and more to celebrate. Not only did Phoenix land safely, but everything seemed to be in perfect working order.

"It was better than we could have possibly wished for," said Barry Goldstein, the project manager for the mission.

Even though everything seems OK, NASA will conduct tests on Phoenix for about a week. Once everything checks out, Phoenix will begin its three-month mission.

It will dig soil samples to look for ice. Assuming it finds some, it will place the ice in a small oven and heat it at temperatures of 1,800° F. Phoenix will then analyze the vapors for elements that would suggest there was, at one time, life on Mars.

Right now, Phoenix is recording images of the Martian arctic landscape as it is readied for its primary mission.

Mars Lander Phoenix, takes a photo, of its leg, after landing safely, on Mars
NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander did a small amount of excavation as it touched down on pebbly north pole terrain on the Red Planet, as shown in this close-up view of one of the lander's three footpads. (Photo: JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M/NASA)

Phoenix joins the Spirit and Opportunity rovers searching for information on Mars. Spirit and Opportunity have operated near the planet's equator since 2004, well beyond their life expectancy. And it was because of the discoveries made by Spirit and Opportunity that NASA decided to launch the Phoenix mission.

Phoenix, however, most likely won't be able to operate much longer than its mission. It will likely be shut down by the frost that will build up on it as it works in Mars' arctic region.

Still, the Phoenix mission is an important one for NASA.

It's the first time the agency has pulled off what's known as a "soft landing." During previous Mars missions, rovers plummeted to the planet's surface--protected by giant air bags that cushioned their falls. For Phoenix, though, the lander deployed a parachute and used 12 thrusters that slowed its descent.

When Phoenix entered Mars' atmosphere, it was traveling at speeds of 12,700 m.p.h. When it landed, it did so at 5.4 m.p.h.

If Phoenix missed this landing, a very important moment in man's exploration of Mars would have come to a crashing end. Luckily, NASA doesn't have to worry about that and can instead look to the future.

"We see Phoenix as a stepping stone to future investigations," said Dr. Peter H. Smith, the primary investigator on the mission.

TELL US WHAT YOU THINK

Read today’s story and answer the following question.

Americans have been traveling into space for more than 40 years. But not everyone thinks that space travel is worth the cost. Some say the money the U.S. spends on space travel should be used to fix problems on Earth. But others say space exploration has helped us make important discoveries and advance our technology.

Is space travel worth the money spent on it? Do you think space exploration is important?

Tell us what you think on the Scholastic News Online Blog!

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