Following in the pad prints and rover tracks of Viking 1 and 2, Mars Pathfinder, Spirit and Opportunity, the Mars Phoenix lander became Earth’s sixth successful visitor to the surface of the Red Planet. Using a maneuver involving parachutes and rocket thrusters, the craft touched down on May 25, to the delight of NASA mission controllers and space fans everywhere. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, one of three craft currently circling Mars, spotted the lander, with its two solar panels splayed out.
One of the first photographs returned by Phoenix, a shot of the northern plains of Mars, shows pebbles and polygonal patterns, which probably result from the seasonal expansion and contraction of ice near the surface. Curiously, the polygons, about 1.5 to 2.5 meters in diameter, were much smaller than estimates made from earlier orbital images, suggesting that the area may be more complex and dynamic than previously thought.
With its 2.4-meter-long robotic arm, Phoenix scooped up some Martian dirt on June 6, but the first attempt to deliver the sample to onboard equipment for analysis—the hope is to find water—stalled when the Martian soil proved to be clumpier than anticipated. The sample sat on top of metal screens meant to sift out smaller particles. Mission controllers had to come up with a means to bypass the problem, including instructing Phoenix to turn on a mechanical screen shaker in an effort to dislodge the material. The seventh and final round of shaking did the trick.
Phoenix should last to September but probably not much beyond that. For most of 2009, it will be encased in dry ice, as the Martian winter arrives and carbon dioxide condenses out of the atmosphere, covering the region.
For more SciAm.com coverage of the Phoenix Lander's mission on Mars, click here
Note: This story was originally published with the title, "Seeing Red".