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Phoenix Project Manager Barry Goldstein and Principal Investigator Peter Smith anxiously await data from the Phoenix probe on Sunday.  (Source: NASA/JPL-Calech)

An artist's montage of the Phoenix probe and its landing. True to the picture, the probe landed intact.  (Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

The first images from the Phoenix spacecraft have been send back, confirming polygonal ground patterns resembling those on permafrost ground on Earth. (color is false)  (Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)
No metric metric conversion or other snafus could foil the landing of the Phoenix lander

After a few terrifying moments on Sunday, NASA scientists received signals from the Phoenix spacecraft.  It had landed safely on the surface of Mars.

The lander promises to not only prepare for the ongoing efforts to send humans to Mars, but also will further the investigation of the possibility that life once existed on Mars.  Before it could complete its mission, though, it had to land.  After months of travel through the dark depths of space, it reached the fringe of Mars' atmosphere and began a plunge referred to as "seven minutes of terror" by NASA.  The seven minute entry has been a punishing one on past satellites -- of the 11 objects which various nations have tried to land on Mars, only 5 survived.

Safely landing requires aeroshell breaking, using a heat resistant shield to create friction with the atmosphere slowing its descent from catastrophic speeds.  The side effect is the shield heats to thousands of degrees, increasing the chance of failures.  After sufficiently reducing the speed, a parachute is deployed.  This is yet another phase prone to past failures.  Finally, the probe must use its retrorockets to gently touch down the surface, to prevent impact damage.

Unfortunately there's no possibility for an Earth-driven landing sequence -- Mars is 15 minutes away from the Earth in radio signal time.  So the craft had to land autonomously.  Shortly before 5:00 pm PDT on Sunday, NASA scientists breathed a collective sigh of relief when they received thumbs up signals from the satellite.

Barry Goldstein, Phoenix project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a statement Sunday that while the most difficult part perhaps -- landing -- had been conquered, challenges lay ahead.  Said Goldstein, "We've passed the hardest part and we're breathing again, but we still need to see that Phoenix has opened its solar arrays and begun generating power."

Then late on Sunday, after two hours of silence, the lander started sending back its first pictures, which confirmed that its solar arrays needed for the mission's energy supply had unfolded properly, and masts for the stereo camera and weather station had swung into vertical position.

Ed Sedivy, Phoenix program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company enthusiastically stated, "Phoenix is an amazing machine, and it was built and flown by an amazing team. Through the entire entry, descent and landing phase, it performed flawlessly.  The spacecraft stayed in contact with Earth during that critical period, and we received a lot of data about its health and performance. I'm happy to report it's in great shape."

The spacecraft landed in a crater in the polar region, which is expected to hold permafrost.  The probe carries instruments to "taste and sniff" the polar ice.  Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson, principal investigator for the Phoenix mission commented on the initial pictures stating, "We see the lack of rocks that we expected, we see the polygons that we saw from space, we don't see ice on the surface, but we think we will see it beneath the surface. It looks great to me."

The next major milestone will be the use of the lander's 7.7 foot robotic arm, which will occur on Tuesday.  The arm contains instruments to dig into the soil and test the permafrost to see if it ever melts and also to see if it has certain chemicals necessary for life as we know it.

The Phoenix lander's hardware, true to its name rose from the ashes of a discarded program.  In 1999 a lander built using most of the same hardware was lost during landing.  This caused a second launch, scheduled for 2001, to be cancelled and the additional hardware built for it to be put in storage.  NASA put the hardware to new use in 2002 for the Phoenix lander, following increased interest in the possibility of life on Mars and human mars exploration.

The mission is truly an international effort.  Outside the U.S. many partners including Canadian Space Agency; the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland; the universities of Copenhagen and Aarhus, Denmark; Max Planck Institute, Germany; the European Space Agency; and the Finnish Meteorological Institute, have contributed to the project.

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The Danish instrument.
By Clauzii on 5/26/2008 2:30:59 PM , Rating: 2
Is amazingly simple build. It's a wind-bag for measuring the windspeed. And yes, it's a very optimized oldstyle type as seen at harbours, airports and such. It is ~3" long and the diameter ~3/4". Hanging between two points, they made some pretty precise wind-speed/torque measurements possible.

Is there btw. a percentage of what the probability is that we carry bacteria etc. out there?

RE: The Danish instrument.
By zsdersw on 5/26/2008 2:46:58 PM , Rating: 2
That probability is quite low, I imagine. Bacteria and organisms native to Earth are quite unlikely to survive on Mars, due to vastly different environmental conditions. It's much colder, drier, and more irradiated on the surface of Mars than almost anywhere on Earth.

RE: The Danish instrument.
By Reclaimer77 on 5/26/2008 2:47:05 PM , Rating: 2
Is there btw. a percentage of what the probability is that we carry bacteria etc. out there?

If we did it would die instantly on the surface.

RE: The Danish instrument.
By rs2 on 5/27/2008 12:31:23 AM , Rating: 2
Not if we terraform it first.

RE: The Danish instrument.
By zsdersw on 5/26/2008 2:53:29 PM , Rating: 2
I understand there are "extremophiles" on Earth; bacteria and small organisms that thrive in extreme conditions, but the likelihood that any of those will have been transported to Mars is probably infinitessimal.

RE: The Danish instrument.
By KristopherKubicki on 5/26/2008 3:02:38 PM , Rating: 2
Even the possibility that they could survive on Mars, where water boils at 50F and ambient temperature is about -150F, seems unlikely to me.

Not that it'll matter, in a few months Phoenix will be encased in a block of frozen carbon dioxide.

RE: The Danish instrument.
By hellokeith on 5/26/2008 6:12:24 PM , Rating: 4
Carbonite preserves quite well, assuming it survived the freezing process.

RE: The Danish instrument.
By GlassHouse69 on 5/27/2008 2:00:07 AM , Rating: 2
nice :)

RE: The Danish instrument.
By Clauzii on 5/29/2008 6:37:27 PM , Rating: 2
Thanks all!
But yes, I was wondering if the extreme conditions bacteria would somehow get out there. I'll guess that had to be done on purpose for that to happen.

RE: The Danish instrument.
By Carter642 on 5/26/2008 3:01:58 PM , Rating: 2
Anything that lands on annother planet is thoroughly sterilized before leaving earth.

RE: The Danish instrument.
By sqrt1 on 5/26/2008 10:36:05 PM , Rating: 3
They don't sterilize probes to mars:

" It may come as a surprise to many that after Viking, we no longer sterilized spacecraft that landed on Mars. Pathfinder, ESA’s Beagle 2, the Mars Polar Lander, and the two MERs were not sterile. Nor will the upcoming Phoenix or MSL rover be sterile. These missions were assembled in special rooms under remarkably clean conditions, but it is known that they carried microorganisms. For Phoenix the arm is sterilized and kept in a biobarrier bag until after landing."

RE: The Danish instrument.
By Clauzii on 5/29/2008 6:47:31 PM , Rating: 2
Ok, so we can't be 101% sure, if we one day find some mutation of those very same organisms?! So if we really want to be sure, it's time for the next UN-toched planet :)

"Nowadays you can buy a CPU cheaper than the CPU fan." -- Unnamed AMD executive
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