Sunday, May 25, 2008
It appears that NASA's Phoenix Mars spacecraft has made a safe landing on Mars.
Because the signal was relayed via the Mars Odyssey orbiter, the controllers would have to wait another couple of hours, until Odyssey's next pass over the landing site, for additional word of the Phoenix's condition, including whether it had successfully unfolded its solar panels and possibly the first photographs.
If all is operating properly, the next few days will be spent checking out the instruments aboard the lander. Then, it will begin the first upclose investigation of Mars' north polar regions. That area became a prime area of interest for planetary scientists after NASA's orbiting Odyssey spacecraft discovered in 2002 vast quantities of water ice lying a few inches beneath the surface in Mars' polar regions.
Phoenix has the same basic design as NASA's Mars Polar Lander, which crashed while landing near the south pole in 1999. The spacecraft was originally going to Mars' equatorial region as Mars Surveyor 2001, but when investigations of the Polar Lander failure turned up major flaws in the design, that mission was cancelled, and the almost complete Surveyor spacecraft was put into storage.
Dr. Smith then proposed using the body of Surveyor and resurrect it as Phoenix for a different mission. Extensive testing identified more than a dozen flaws in the lander design, and mission managers believed they fixed all of the known problems.