Next Mars mission to test for signs of life

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NASA yesterday announced the dates and details for its next mission to Mars, the launch of the Phoenix Mars Lander to the red planet’s frozen northern extremes to take soil samples and test for water and other conditions favorable to the development of life.

The Phoenix will launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., during a three-week period, starting Aug. 3, with the touchdown on the Martian landscape planned for May 25 or June 5, depending on the launch date, the agency said.

The lander will travel 423 million miles, aiming for a landing site devoid of boulders at a latitude equivalent to northern Alaska on Earth. Scientists expect the lander to operate in temperatures as low as 148 degrees below zero, taking soil samples to be examined using instruments on board.

“I think it’s going to be a really exciting mission to the north pole — first time we’ve been up there — and I’m really looking forward to this,” said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program.

The lander will “examine the history of the ice by measuring how liquid water has modified the chemistry and mineralogy of the soil,” said investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona. The mission’s other main goals include determining whether the soil could support life and studying Martian polar weather.

The Phoenix is the first NASA “Scout”-model lander, which, with its solar panels unfurled, measures about 18 feet wide and 5 feet long. They stay in one spot rather than crawl around the planet as the Mars rovers did. They have no means of returning to Earth.

“They’re smaller, they’re less expensive, they’re managed by personal investigators, and they tend to be a little more adventurous than a strategic mission. A little higher risk with a little higher payoff, potentially, hopefully,” Mr. McCuistion said.

The Phoenix’s instruments include a robotic arm to collect soil samples, a thermal and evolved-gas analyzer consisting of eight small ovens to heat and analyze materials and a camera to take pictures of the surrounding landscape. These instruments, along with other materials including solar panels and lithium ion batteries, make up the lander’s body.

The lander, part of a $420 million mission, will be launched using a three-stage Delta II rocket. Upon entering the Martian landscape, the lander will attempt a “soft” landing via a mix of techniques including the use of a parachute and the lander’s legs.

Mr. McCuistion stressed the risk in landing the craft, saying, “The global success rate for landing on Mars is under 50 percent.” More than 30 attempts to land on Mars have been made, including missions from the former Soviet Union, Russia, Japan, the European Space Agency and the United States.

The two missions being considered for the second Mars scout, to be launched in 2011, are both dedicated to the purpose of orbiting Mars and “examining the chemistry and dynamics of Mars’ upper atmosphere,” NASA says.

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