The Phoenix Mars lander, shown in this artist's rendering, would touch down in the Martian arctic in May 2008.
updated 6/3/2005 1:10:16 PM ET 2005-06-03T17:10:16

NASA is moving ahead with plans to put a long-armed lander on Mars' icy north pole to search for clues for water and possible signs of life.

The $386 million Phoenix Mars is scheduled to touch down in the Martian arctic in May 2008.  The stationary probe will use its robotic arm to dig into the icy terrain and scoop up soil samples to analyze.  In 2002, the Mars Odyssey orbiter spotted evidence of ice-rich soil near the arctic surface.

Scientists hope the Phoenix mission will yield clues to the geologic history of water on the Red Planet and determine whether microbes existed in the ice.

Phoenix will be the first mission of the Mars Scout program, a renewed, low-cost effort to study the Red Planet.

During the next two years, scientists will test the spacecraft and payload as well as choose a landing site in the northern latitudes based on information gathered by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that will launch in August.

"The Phoenix mission explores new territory in the northern plains of Mars analogous to the permafrost regions on Earth," principal investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson, said in a statement released Thursday.

True to its name, Phoenix rose from the ashes of previous missions.  The lander for Phoenix was built to fly as part of the 2001 Mars Surveyor program. But the program was scrapped after the high-profile disappearance of the Mars Polar Lander in 1999.  The Polar Lander lost contact during a landing attempt near the planet's south pole after its rocket engine shut off prematurely, causing the spacecraft to tumble about 130 feet (40 meters) to almost certain destruction.

The Phoenix probe had been in storage at a Lockheed Martin clean room in Denver before it was resurrected for its current mission. It will carry science instruments that were designed for the Mars Surveyor program including an improved panoramic camera and a trench-digging robotic arm.

Phoenix will lift off from the Kennedy Space Center in August 2007 and land on the planet nine months later.  The mission is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Phoenix would join a veritable armada of spacecraft monitoring the Red Planet: In addition to Mars Odyssey, NASA's Mars Global Surveyor and the European Space Agency's Mars Express are operating in orbit, while the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity are on the job on the surface.

NASA is planning to send the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter toward the planet this August. The  Mars Science Laboratory, an instrument-laden rover, is scheduled for launch in 2009. Europe, meanwhile, is planning for another Mars mission in 2011 as part of its Aurora exploration program.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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