Image: Phoenix Mars Lander
NASA via Reuters
Workers surround NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander on its launch pad on July 23. The spacecraft is due for liftoff no earlier than Saturday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 7/31/2007 4:52:15 PM ET 2007-07-31T20:52:15

The launch of NASA's latest Mars probe has been put off until Saturday at the earliest, due to bad weather back on Earth.

NASA had planned for a Friday liftoff, but on Tuesday, the space agency said severe weather at the launch site in Florida forced a delay in fueling up the second stage of the Delta 2 rocket that would send the Phoenix Mars Lander on its 10-month-long, 423-million-mile trip.

The fueling is expected to be completed on Wednesday, but the delay left "insufficient contingency time in the schedule to move forward with the planned Friday launch," NASA said in a launch update.

NASA has three weeks to launch Phoenix, but in the near term, the launch opportunities may be limited due to the space agency's plans to launch the shuttle Endeavour on Aug. 7 or later. The launch windows are governed by the orbital mechanics for going to Mars. Saturday's opportunities come at 5:26 and 6:02 a.m. ET.

Phoenix's launch marks only the start of the suspense for mission managers. The spacecraft will have to survive landing on the surface of the rocky, dusty Red Planet, which has a reputation of swallowing manmade probes. Of the 15 global attempts to land spacecraft on Mars, only five have made it.

"Mars has the tendency to throw you curveballs," said Doug McCuistion, who heads the Mars program at NASA Headquarters.

Unlike the durable twin rovers near the equator, the Phoenix Mars Lander will sit in one place and extend its long arm to dig trenches in the permafrost and scoop up soil for analysis. Made of aluminum and titanium, the 8-foot-long (2.5-meter) arm acts like a backhoe and can dig down 20 inches (50 centimeters) and rotate.

Looking for life
Although Phoenix lacks the tools to detect past or current life, scientists hope it will shed light on whether Mars' northern arctic possesses the signature ingredients for microbes to exist.

The lander is expected to conduct a three-month mission in Mars' northern plains. If successful, it will be the first time since the Viking missions three decades ago that a robot will drill beneath the Martian surface.

Once it lands, Phoenix will heat the soil samples in miniature ovens to study their chemistry. The lander can detect the presence of organics, although it won't be able to tell if there's DNA or protein, said principal investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Slideshow: Cosmic Sightings The landing site was chosen because previous spacecraft found evidence that frozen water lurked below the surface. Some believe the shallow valley measuring about 30 miles wide might be the remnant of an ancient sea. However, Phoenix will look for evidence of liquid water that may have existed as recently as 100,000 years ago.

There's no water on the arid Martian surface today, but Phoenix's job is to find out whether the underground ice may have melted, creating a wetter environment. Scientists generally agree that water, along with the presence of organic materials and a stable heat source, is needed to support life.

To prevent Phoenix from accidentally bringing organisms to Mars, technicians had to take special care while prepping the lander for launch. It underwent dry heat treatment and precision cleaning to reduce the amount of germs on its surface. Its trench-digging arm was also sealed in a special wrapping to prevent contamination.

Phoenix is the first project from NASA's Scout program, a low-cost complement to pricier Mars missions in orbit and on the surface. Managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Phoenix cost $420 million compared to the hardy rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which cost $820 million to launch in 2003.

Rising from ashes
True to its name, Phoenix rose from the ashes of previous missions. It was supposed to fly in 2001 as a sidekick to the Mars Odyssey orbiter. The orbiter reached Mars, but the lander mission was canceled in the wake of back-to-back losses in 1999.

The Mars Climate Orbiter burned up as it neared Mars because Lockheed Martin/NASA mismatched metric and English measurement units. The Mars Polar Lander tumbled to its death after its rocket engine shut off prematurely as it tried to touch down on the south pole. Neither wreckage has been found.

Phoenix, built by Lockheed Martin, carries several science instruments similar to ones that flew on the ill-fated Polar Lander mission. Engineers rigorously tested the spacecraft over the last four years "to drive out any of the problems we might have in the system," said Barry Goldstein, project manager at JPL.

If Phoenix survives its primary mission, it will turn into a weather station and collect data on the atmosphere.

This report includes information from The Associated Press and MSNBC.com.

© 2013 msnbc.com

Photos: The greatest hits from Mars

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  1. The face of Mars

    The Hubble Space Telescope focuses on the full disk of Mars, with a head-on view of a dark feature known as Syrtis Major. Hubble astronomers could make out features as small as 12 miles wide. (AURA / STSCI / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Red, white and blue planet

    Two decades before Pathfinder, the Viking 1 lander sent back America's first pictures from the Martian surface. This 1976 picture shows off the lander's U.S. flag and a Bicentennial logo as well as the planet's landscape. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Grand canyon

    This is a composite of Viking orbiter images that shows the Valles Marineris canyon system. The entire system measures more than 1,875 miles long and has an average depth of 5 miles. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Red rover

    A mosaic of eight pictures shows the Pathfinder probe's Sojourner rover just after it rolled off its ramp. At lower right you can see one of the airbags that cushioned Pathfinder's landing on July 4, 1997. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Twin Peaks at their peak

    The Pathfinder probe focuses on Twin Peaks, two hills of modest height on the Martian horizon. Each peak rises about 100 feet above the surrounding rock-littered terrain. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Blue horizon

    A Martian sunset reverses the colors you'd expect on Earth: Most of the sky is colored by reddish dust hanging in the atmosphere, but the scattering of light creates a blue halo around the sun itself. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Two-faced Mars

    The image at left, captured by a Viking orbiter in the 1970s, sparked speculation that Martians had constructed a facelike monument peering into space. But the sharper image at right, sent back in 1998 by Mars Global Surveyor, spoiled the effect. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Put on a happy face

    The "Happy Face Crater" - officially named Galle Crater - puts a humorous spin on the "Face on Mars" controversy. This image was provided by the Mars Global Surveyor orbiter. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A monster of a mountain

    Mars' highest mountain, an inactive volcano dubbed Olympus Mons, rises as high as three Everests and covers roughly the same area as the state of Arizona. Mars Global Surveyor took this wide-angle view. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Pockmarked moon

    Mars Global Surveyor snapped this picture of Phobos, the larger of Mars' two potato-shaped moons. Phobos' average width is just 14 miles. The image highlights Phobos' 6-mile-wide Stickney Crater. () Back to slideshow navigation
  11. From Mars with love

    This valentine from Mars, as seen by Mars Global Surveyor, is actually a pit formed by a collapse within a straight-walled trough known in geological terms as a graben. The pit spans 1.4 miles at its widest point. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Sandy swirls

    An image taken by Mars Global Surveyor shows a section of the northern sand dunes on Mars' surface. The dunes, composed of dark sand grains, encircle the north polar cap. (JPL / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Curls of clouds

    Global Surveyor focuses on a storm system over Mars' north polar region. The north polar ice cap is the white feature at the top center of the frame. Clouds that appear white consist mainly of water ice. Clouds that appear orange or brown contain dust. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Swiss cheese

    Global Surveyor captured images of a frost pattern at Mars' south polar ice cap that looks like Swiss cheese. The south polar cap is the only region on the Red Planet to contain such formations. (NASA / JPL / Malin Space Science) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Purple Planet

    A false-color image from the Opportunity rover, released Feb. 9, 2004, accentuates the differences between a green-looking slab of Martian bedrock and orange-looking spheres of rock. Scientists likened the "spherules" to blueberries embedded within and scattered around muffins of bedrock. The spherules are thought to have been created by the percolation of mineral-laden water through the bedrock layers. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Dunes of Mars

    A false-color view from NASA's Opportunity rover, released Aug. 6, 2004, shows the dune field at the bottom of Endurance Crater. The bluish tint indicates the presence of hematite-containing spherules ("blueberries") that accumulate on the flat surfaces of the crater floor. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Alien junkyard

    The Opportunity rover looks at its own heat shield, which was jettisoned during the spacecraft's descent back in January 2004, on Dec. 22, 2004. The main structure from the heat shield is at left, with additional debris and the scar left by the shield's impact to the right. The shadow of the rover's observation mast is visible in the foreground. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Devil on Mars

    This image shows a mini-whirlwind, also known as a dust devil, scooting across the plains inside Gusev Crater on Mars, as seen from the Spirit rover's hillside vantage point on April 18, 2005. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Rub al Khali

    The tracks of NASA's Opportunity rover are visible in a panoramic picture of a desolate, sandy stretch of Martian terrain in Meridiani Planum, photographed in May 2005 and released by NASA on July 28. "Rub al Khali" (Arabic for "Empty Quarter") was chosen as the title of this panorama because that is the name of a similarly barren, desolate part of the Saudi Arabian desert on Earth. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Double moons

    Taking advantage of extra solar energy collected during the day, NASA's Spirit rover spent a night stargazing, photographing the two moons of Mars as they crossed the night sky. The large bright moon is Phobos; the smaller one to its left is Deimos. (NASA / JPL / Cornell / Texas A&M) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Mars in the round

    A 360-degree panorama shows a stretched-out view of NASA's Spirit rover and its surroundings on the summit of Husband Hill, within Mars' Gusev Crater. The imagery for the panorama was acquired in August, and the picture was released on Dec. 5. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Fossil delta

    Scientifically, perhaps the most important result from use of the Mars Orbiter Camera on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor has been the discovery in November 2003 of a fossil delta located in a crater northeast of Holden Crater. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Underneath the ice

    This view taken in January 2005 shows sharp detail of a scarp at the head of Chasma Boreale, a large trough cut by erosion into the Martian north polar cap and the layered material beneath the ice cap. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Celestial celebration

    Controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., cheer on Friday after hearing that Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter successfully made it into orbit around the Red Planet. (Phil McCarten / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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