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Next Mars lander delivered to NASA

A robotic probe designed to touch and analyze Martian water for the first time is being prepared for launch at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, officials said Tuesday.
Spacecraft technician Billy Jones inspects the Mars Phoenix lander's robotic arm during assembly at a Lockheed Martin Space Systems clean-room facility near Denver. The lander was delivered to NASA's Kennedy Space Center this week, in preparation for its launch in August.
Spacecraft technician Billy Jones inspects the Mars Phoenix lander's robotic arm during assembly at a Lockheed Martin Space Systems clean-room facility near Denver. The lander was delivered to NASA's Kennedy Space Center this week, in preparation for its launch in August.Patrick H. Corkery / NASA / JPL / UA / Lockheed Martin
/ Source: Reuters

A robotic probe designed to touch and analyze Martian water for the first time is being prepared for launch at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, officials said Tuesday.

The craft, known as Phoenix, is expected to land in the northern polar region of Mars and dig beneath the soil. Launch is scheduled for Aug. 3 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Bolstered by evidence that Mars once had liquid surface water, scientists are keen to recover an actual sample to see if the materials for life exist. A fleet of satellites and rovers has been scouring the surface of Mars to try to determine if the planet was habitable at some point in its past. Scientists also want to understand the environmental and climatic changes that turned what is believed to have been a warm, watery world into the cold, dry desert that exists today.

Phoenix will add a microscopic perspective to the mix.

Upon reaching Mars in May 2008, the spacecraft is to land just as the winter ice begins to recede around the polar cap. Scientists expect the probe will touch down on newly exposed soil, but their true target lies just beneath the surface.

Among Phoenix’s tools are devices to scoop and drill, photograph and chemically analyze soil and ice samples.

“We expect hard, icy soil right beneath the ground,” planetary scientist and Phoenix researcher Ray Arvidson, with Washington University in St. Louis, said in an interview.

Samples will be dissolved in water to look for salts, which likely would have been deposited during watery conditions in the past. Phoenix’s onboard laboratory also includes small ovens to break down minerals in the samples for chemical analysis.

Searching for water
NASA’s first foray for signs of the ingredients for life on Mars was conducted during the twin 1976 Viking missions, but those landers touched down in dry regions. Satellites have since revealed widespread ice near the planet’s poles.

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Some scientists believe a vast frozen ocean is buried beneath the ice. Another theory says Mars’ polar ice solidified from atmospheric water vapor, not a widespread ocean.

Phoenix will be able to make isotopic measurements of the hydrogen and oxygen molecules and perhaps resolve this puzzle.

“It’s likely that we’ll get interesting results from the soil samples,” Arvidson said.

Spare parts from past failures
First, Phoenix must reach Mars, a journey that has claimed dozens of previous spacecraft. Phoenix is a resurrection of spare parts and instruments from the unsuccessful Mars Polar Lander and Mars Surveyor 2001 Lander initiatives.

Polar Lander was lost as it attempted to touch down in December 1999. Mars Surveyor was canceled in the wake of Polar Lander’s failure and the loss of a sister probe, Mars Climate Orbiter, two months earlier.

NASA traced the failures to inadequate testing and oversights. A metric conversion error led to the orbiter’s demise, for example.

Like Polar Lander and Climate Orbiter, Phoenix is a relatively low-cost mission.

Rather than building “faster, better, cheaper” spacecraft, as had been NASA’s aim in the 1990s, Phoenix achieves its savings by narrowly focusing its science agenda to one issue: whether or not Mars had the ingredients for life.