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The Phoenix has landed
Bryan Lee
Tue, May 27, 2008
The Straits Times
WASHINGTON - AN AMBITIOUS effort to determine whether Mars' arctic region ever had microbial forms of life was under way yesterday after Nasa landed the Phoenix probe near the Red Planet's north pole and began sending pictures.

After a 10-month journey from Earth, Phoenix managed an almost perfect landing in a relatively rock-free, flat target area, said Mr Barry Goldstein, Phoenix project manager at the mission's control centre at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Mission control erupted in cheers when a radio signal from Phoenix detected at 2353 GMT (about 8am Singapore time yesterday) confirmed the Phoenix Mars Lander had survived its difficult final descent and touchdown.

'For the first time in 32 years, and only the third time in history, a JPL team has carried out a soft landing on Mars,' National Aeronautics and Space Administration head Michael Griffin said in a statement.

Phoenix had to deploy a parachute and then thrusters to slow its descent from 20,400kmh in a tense seven minutes, managing a soft landing on its three legs.

The touchdown was the first soft landing on the planet by a spacecraft on legs for more than 30 years.

The first successful landing took place in 1976 when US twin Viking landers touched down and took soil samples.

Though they failed to find evidence of life, experiments revealed surprising chemical activity in the Martian soil.

Once on the surface, Phoenix unfolded its solar arrays that are crucial to generating power during the mission.

Less than two hours after landing, the Nasa spacecraft beamed back four dozen black and white images, including one of its foot sitting on Martian soil amid tiny rocks.

Others included the horizon of the arctic plain and ground with polygon patterns similar to those found in Earth's permafrost regions.

'Absolutely beautiful,' said Mr Dan McCleese, chief scientist at Nasa's jet propulsion laboratory. 'It looks like a good place to start digging.'

Working in the flat circumpolar region known as Vastitas Borealis - akin to northern Canada in Earth's latitude - Phoenix, with a panoply of high-tech equipment, will over three months dig below the surface to probe the icy ground for signs of liquid water and organic, life-supporting minerals.

Phoenix joins the twin rovers on the Martian surface, which have been exploring the equatorial plains since 2004.

Unlike the mobile rovers, Phoenix was designed to stay in one spot and dig trenches in the soil.

Mars' polar region is subject to Earth-like seasonal changes, with a Martian day lasting about 40 minutes more than an Earth day. Scientists think that, like on Earth, the Martian arctic might have a geological record of a warmer, habitable climate.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, ASSOCIATED PRESS
 

READERS' POSTINGS
"This is great to keep overseas Singaporeans connected to home news and affairs"

"My favourite was "The Aftermath for Malaysia Election" - (in my opinion), this was a very well crafted world standard image, it is even suitable for a Time magazine cover!"
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