6 August 2007—NASA’s latest Mars mission launched this past Saturday after being delayed for a day due to inclement weather. The Phoenix lander, scheduled to descend onto the Red Planet next May, carries instruments that will aid the quest to try to find evidence of life beneath the planet’s icy arctic region.
Despite all the attention given to the possibility of finding life on our planetary neighbor, Phoenix is only the first Mars lander properly equipped to do such identification and analysis since the 1976 Viking mission. It will land in Vastitas Borealis, the arctic plains of Mars, and will spend more than 90 days investigating the history of water on Mars, assessing whether the planet could have ever supported life, and examining weather and climate near the pole.
Phoenix is fitted with a robotic arm for digging trenches and collecting soil samples. The arm features a camera to capture detailed images of soil before and after it has been scooped up. The lander also carries a stereoscopic imager to capture full panoramas; electrical, chemical, and microscopy tools to analyze samples; and temperature and pressure sensors for meteorological observation. Phoenix’s brain is a radiation-hardened computer made by BAE Systems, at the heart of which is an IBM microprocessor.
Phoenix will be the first lander to communicate with Earth by relaying its messages through the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which features the new Electra UHF relay transceiver, an attempt at providing higher bandwidth for space communications.