Just before 8 p.m. Eastern time, mission controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory here received a radio signal from the Phoenix on the ground in the icy plains north of Mars’ Arctic circle. The lander kept contact with Mission Control throughout the landing process. NASA had predicted that technicians would lose contact when the lander created hot plasma during atmospheric deceleration, but the signal was never lost. The lander is sitting a half degree off-axis, a near perfect landing. When asked if the landing could have gone better, Phoenix project manager, Barry Goldstein replied, “
The lander is now transmitting data to the Mars Odyssey and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. These satellites currently in orbit around Mars are rebroadcasting the data from the Phoenix Lander in what NASA call a “bent-pipe” relay. That data is being received by the giant antennas at the Goldstone Deep Space Network Complex and sent directly to Mission Control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for processing. If all is operating properly, the next few days will be spent checking out the instruments aboard the lander. Then, it will begin the first upclose investigation of Mars’ north polar regions. That area became a prime area of interest for planetary scientists after NASA’s orbiting Odyssey spacecraft discovered in 2002 vast quantities of water ice lying a few inches beneath the surface in Mars’ polar regions.
All of Mars’ surface is currently far too cold for life to exist, but in the past, Mars’ axis may have periodically tipped over so that its north pole pointed at the sun during summer. That conceivably could have warmed the ice into liquid water, and a possibility of life.
On Phoenix, a robotic arm with a scoop at the end will dig into the permafrost terrain into the ice. Instruments on the spacecraft included a small oven that will heat the scooped-up dirt and ice to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. Analyzing the vapors will provide information of the minerals, and that will, in turn, provide clues about whether the ice ever melted and whether this region was habitable for life.