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Mars-bound Phoenix passes in-flight tests

Several crucial devices aboard NASA's Mars-bound Phoenix lander have passed in-flight testing.
A labeled look at NASA's Mars Phoenix Lander.
A labeled look at NASA's Mars Phoenix Lander.NASA / JPL-Caltech / UA / Lockheed Martin
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Several crucial devices aboard NASA's Mars-bound Phoenix lander have passed in-flight testing.

Mission managers remotely inspected Phoenix's descent-monitoring radar as well as its UHF radio, which will communicate with Mars satellites after it reaches the Red Planet's surface on May 25, 2008. The instruments passed all tests with flying colors as the craft zooms through space at 76,000 mph (34 kilometers per second).

"Everything is going as planned. No surprises, but this is one of those times when boring is good," said Barry Goldstein, Phoenix project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Phoenix currently speaks with Earth via a high-frequency X-band radio unit, but the device is mounted on a part of the spacecraft that will be jettisoned shortly before Phoenix encounters the Martian atmosphere. The UHF radio will be crucial to relaying data once the piece is detached.

As Phoenix plummets to the red planet's surface, its radar system will ping the distance to the ground and switch on descent-slowing engines and other equipment at just the right moments during descent.

If the lander touches down in the northern reaches of Mars unscathed, mission scientists are looking forward to probing the icy soil to check for conditions hospitable to microbial life. Just days prior to the radar and UHF radio checks, the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer — which will analyze the soil conditions — also passed thorough checks.

Four more instrument checks are set before Phoenix makes its correction maneuver, planned for Oct. 16, that will continue the spacecraft on its remaining 422-million-mile (679-million-kilometer) flight to Mars. Phoenix has traversed more 50 million miles (81 million kilometers) of space since it blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Aug. 4, 2007.