Exciting news from NASA–their long-awaited Phoenix Lander is scheduled to touch down on the Martian surface on Sunday, nine and a half months after leaving Earth. The Phoenix is another NASA mission sent to look for evidence of life on the Red Planet. Unlike previous missions, the Phoenix will touch down in the far Martian north–approximately equivalent to northern Canada or Alaska on Earth. In the Martian winters, this region is covered in ice; but during this Martian summer the region will have thawed out and the lander can explore the ice and dirt for signs of life.
The map above was produced by the New York Times to show the Phoenix Lander’s final destination–a flat area of lowlands by the Heimdall Crater in the Vastitas Borealis region of Mars. These arctic plains are barren and generally free of boulders or chasms that could endanger the lander. Click here or on the picture above to see the full map. You can read the full Times article here.
Previous Mars missions such as Pathfinder, and more recently Spirit and Opportunity, have focused on the planet’s equatorial regions. And as rovers, they have moved and explored large areas of the Martian surface. Not only is Phoenix going to the frigid Martian north instead of the relatively balmy tropics, but it is also a simple lander, not a rover. Where the Phoenix lands, it stays, just as NASA’s Viking landers operated back in the 1970s.
The Phoenix is a remakable instrument. Just to get to the surface safely it will have to perform a sequence of stunning aerobatic maneuvers, including a booster-slowed free-fall to the planet surface. Here is a video from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the Phoenix descent:
Once on the surface it will use a robotic arm to scoop up soil and ice. The lander even has a set of small ovens to bake its samples to high temperatures, allowing its instruments to examine the liquids and gasses that form.
NASA expects to know by about 8:00 pm Eastern Time on Sunday if the lander arrived safely.