- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 5, 2007

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — A robotic dirt and ice digger rocketed toward Mars yesterday, beginning a 422-million-mile journey that NASA hopes will culminate next spring in the first landing within the red planet’s arctic circle.

The Phoenix Mars Lander blasted off before dawn, hurtling through the moonlit sky aboard an unmanned Delta rocket. The rocket was easily visible for five minutes, a bright orange speck in a spray of stars.

Michael Hecht, a lead scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said he watched the launch from the beach with friends and colleagues.

Inside launch control, engineers were wringing their hands as they awaited contact with the spacecraft. Launch director Chuck Dovale confirmed success 1½ hours into the flight.

“Everything appears normal, but it was a little bit of anxious moments there,” Mr. Dovale said. “It seemed like an eternity but it was about 20 minutes or so where we weren’t sure. We were hoping Phoenix would phone home and she did.”

If all goes as planned — a big if considering only five of the world’s 15 attempts to land on Mars have succeeded — the spacecraft will set down on the Martian arctic plains on May 25 and spend three months scooping up soil and ice and analyzing the samples in miniature ovens and mixing bowls.

The Phoenix Mars Lander won’t be looking for evidence of life on Mars but rather traces of organic compounds in the baked and moistened samples, which could be an indicator of conditions favorable for life, either now or in the past.

If organic compounds are present on Mars, they are likely to have been preserved in ice. That is why NASA is aiming for the planet’s high northern latitudes, where ice is almost certainly lurking just beneath the surface.

Only about 6 inches of soft red soil should cover the ice, so the digger shouldn’t have to probe too deeply. The ice is expected to be as hard as concrete, and a drill on the scoop will help gather enough frozen samples. Some dirt and ice samples will be baked and their vapors analyzed. Other soil samples will be mixed with onboard water and the muddy soup examined by onboard microscopes.

“We’re really going there just to understand whether the conditions might have been hospitable for microbial life at some point,” said the University of Arizona’s William Boynton, lead scientist for the oven experiment.

Even if organic molecules appear, they could be from incoming meteorites, Mr. Boynton noted. “It is important, I think, to keep in mind that we are just looking for organic molecules to see if the conditions are right that they could survive, and that we aren’t really going to be making any inference about whether these molecules are indicative of life.”

Mars landings are especially risky. Only five of the 15 U.S., Russian and European attempts have worked, all of them American successes beginning with the 1976 Viking touchdowns.