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Phoenix Will Dig For Water And Life On Edge Of Northern Polar Zone Of Mars

The Phoenix's robotic arm will lift soil samples to two instruments on its deck. One instrument will check for water and carbon-based chemicals, considered essential building blocks for life, while the other will analyze the soil chemistry.
by Jean-Louis Santini
Washington (AFP) Aug 02, 2007
NASA on Saturday is to launch space probe Phoenix on a nine-month journey to Mars' arctic region, where it will dig through ice for clues to past or present microbial life on the red planet. The Phoenix Mars Lander is scheduled for blastoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida on August 4, with a first attempt at 5:36 am (0936 GMT), and a second attempt, should it be needed, at 6:02 am (1002 GMT). It was originally scheduled to launch on Friday, but postponed 24 hours after adverse weather Tuesday prevented fueling of the two-stage Delta II rocket that will propel Phoenix into space.

The space probe's full launch window for its 680 million kilometer (422 million mile), 420 million dollar mission to Mars extends until August 24.

If all goes according to schedule the Phoenix should land on Mars in late May 2008.

NASA hopes to land the probe on flat ground with few or no rocks at a Martian latitude equivalent to northern Alaska on Earth.

At that site the Phoenix is likely to face temperatures that range from minus 73 degrees Celsius (minus 99 degrees Fahrenheit) to minus 33 C (minus 91 F).

Once it lands safely on the Martian surface, the probe will deploy a set of research tools never before used on the planet.

The solar-powered craft is equipped with a 2.35 meter (7.5 foot) robotic arm that will enter vertically into the soil, aiming to strike the icy crust that is believed to lie within a few inches of the surface.

The Phoenix's robotic arm will lift soil samples to two instruments on its deck. One instrument will check for water and carbon-based chemicals, considered essential building blocks for life, while the other will analyze the soil chemistry.

Many scientists see signs of ancient rivers and oceans on the arid and sterile surface of Mars, and believe the planet may once have harbored some forms of life.

In 2002, the NASA probe Mars Odyssey detected huge quantities of hydrogen on the Martian surface, a likely sign there could be ice at a depth of less than one meter (three feet).

Unlike NASA rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which have been rolling across the Martian landscape since 2004 powered by their solar batteries, the Phoenix will stay in one place on the Martian ground.

And unlike the rovers, which made a bouncy landing on Mars inside huge air bags, the Phoenix is programmed to carry out a soft touchdown.

As with previous missions, the Phoenix will deploy a heat shield to slow its high-speed entry into the Martian atmosphere. It will then open a supersonic parachute that will cut its speed to about 217 kilometers (135 miles) per hour.

The lander then separates from the parachute and fires pulsed descent rocket engines to slow the craft to about nine kilometers per hour (5.5 miles per hour) before landing on its three legs.

Fifteen minutes after landing, the probe's solar panels will deploy and power up its instruments.

The Phoenix Mars Lander measures 5.5 x 1.5 meters (18 x 5 feet) and carries 55 kilograms (121 pounds) of scientific equipment.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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Growing Concern That Opportunity Is Freezing To Silence
Pasadena CA (JPL) Aug 02, 2007
Rover engineers are growing increasingly concerned about the temperature of vital electronics on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity while the rover stays nearly inactive due to a series of dust storms that has lasted for more than a month. Dust in the atmosphere and dust settling onto Opportunity's solar panels challenges the ability of the solar panels to convert sunlight into enough electricity to supply the rover's needs.

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