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This artist's concept depicts the Phoenix lander on the surface of Mars near the Northern Polar Ice Cap. Round photovoltaic solar panels extend from the sides of the spacecraft, generating electrical power. The robotic arm (left) reaches out to scoop up soil samples for analysis. The thin green laser beam of the probe's LIDAR instrument shoots skyward, measuring dust in the Martian atmosphere.
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Image courtesy of NASA/JPL/UA/Lockheed Martin.

Phoenix Mars Lander - Instruments and Mission Objectives

The Phoenix Mars Lander is a space mission sent by NASA to the North Polar Region of Mars. This page describes the instruments aboard the spacecraft and the mission objectives for Phoenix. Click here to read an overview of the Phoenix mission on a different page.

Unlike other recent Mars landers, Phoenix was not a rover. The spacecraft stayed put on the Martian surface, using a robotic arm to scoop up and analyze soil and ice in the immediate vicinity of the lander. In 2002 an earlier mission, the Mars Odyssey Orbiter, apparently detected large amounts of water ice just below the surface of the vast plains surrounding the Northern Polar Ice Cap of Mars. Phoenix found and analyzed these ice deposits, in hopes of clarifying the history of water in the Martian arctic and of determining the likelihood that this layer could help support the possible existence of life. Liquid water does not currently exist on the surface of Mars, though water ice and water vapor can be found above ground. However, scientists are pretty sure that liquid water did exist on the surface in the distant past, and may have even been around as recently as 100,000 years ago. Variations in the orbit and axial tilt of the Red Planet periodically alter the climate of Mars; scientists wonder whether ancient Martian life (if any ever existed) in the form of hardy microbial spores might lie dormant in a subsurface ice layer, "waiting" for warmer times during which they might thrive. The Phoenix mission was designed to detect and chemically analyze subsurface ice, testing its suitability to sustain living things. This approach is part of NASA's "follow the water" campaign to search for life on Mars.

The Phoenix lander is named after the mythical bird that bursts into flames, but then is reborn from its own ashes. Phoenix uses some parts from the Mars Surveyor 2001 Lander spacecraft (cancelled in 2000, but carefully stored at Lockheed Martin) and from the unsuccessful 1999 Mars Polar Lander mission. The lander carried a robotic arm, equipped with a camera, that could reach out up to 2.35 meters (almost 8 feet) and dig down about half a meter (about 20 inches) to retrieve soil and ice samples. Phoenix had two suites of instruments to analyze the samples it dug up: the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA) and the Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA). TEGA included a high temperature furnace and a mass spectrometer that could measure the minerals, carbon dioxide, ice, and other materials in collected soil samples. MECA combined a wet chemistry lab, optical and atomic force microscopes, and a thermal and electrical conductivity probe. MECA could measure the biologic compatibility (such as whether the soil is to acidic or salty to support life, or is full of oxidants that destroy life) of Martian soil, both for possible Martian life and for possible future "visitors" from Earth. Phoenix also carried a Meteorological Station that took daily weather readings of temperature and air pressure, and included a LIDAR (Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging) to measure dust in the atmosphere. Finally, Phoenix also had stereo cameras mounted on the main body of the lander that complemented the camera on the robotic arm.

Last modified February 4, 2010 by Randy Russell.

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