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Phoenix Mars Lander

​​The head of the Phoenix Mars Lander team explains why new findings about the chemistry of Martian soil is revealing new potential for water—and life. Would an Arizonan be comfortable on Mars? Peter Smith discusses how Phoenix helped answer that question and other discoveries.

In the Martian polar regions, water ice appears just below ground level. This fact has intrigued planetary scientists for years with the question of whether Mars has ever sustained life, or has the capability of doing so. The 2007 Phoenix mission helped find answers to these questions. The lander explored the surface of Mars to study the history of water in the Martian arctic and to search for evidence of a habitable zone and the potential for life in the soil-ice boundary. The mission, designed to run a portable lab from the Martian arctic for three months, remains a monumental step in space exploration.

University of Arizona Takes Lead

Lunar and Planetary Laboratory professor Peter Smith was named Principal Investigator on the Phoenix Lander Mission  back in 2003. Not only did he coordinate it construction with a team of world renowned scientists, but UA housed the Science Operations Center, where teams commanded the vehicle once it landed on Mars and received the data it sent back. It is the first mission to Mars led by a public university in NASA history.

International Collaboration

This mosaic of images from the Surface Stereo Imager camera on NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander shows several trenches dug by Phoenix, plus a corner of the spacecraft's deck and the Martian arctic plain stretching to the horizon.UA, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Lockheed Martin Space Systems collaborated to build and launch the spacecraft. International institutions contributed their finest technology to create a sophisticated portable laboratory within the lander. A powerful robotic arm on the rover could dig through the topsoil to collect sub-surface water ice. Miniature ovens and a mass spectrometer (built by UA and University of Texas-Dallas) analyzed samples with help from a "chemistry lab in a box" built by JPL. Imaging systems built by UA, University of Neuchatel, Switzerland (which provided an atomic force microscope), Max Planck Institute (Germany) and Malin Space Science Systems captured seminal views of Martian terrain. The Canadian Space Agency supplied a meteorological station to assess climate. Solar panels helped power the rover and supply electricity for data transmission.

Mission Success

The mission is considered a resounding success. Phoenix touched down near the Martian north polar region on May 25, 2008 and operated successfully for almost five months, two months longer than its planned mission length. Its labs detected calcium carbonate and water ice. Sample analysis led to insights in composition of the alkaline soil. Sensitive instruments offered knowledge on climate and weather patterns.

The craft was not designed to withstand the winter. As the long nights of the Martian winter approached, the solar panels that powered the lander could not collect enough sun to operate at full power. Phoenix sent its final transmission on November 2, 2008 and sustained damage from the harsh conditions and layers of dry ice brought by the cold season. Images taken from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showed the lander with damage to its solar panels. The mission was formally ended on May 24, 2010.

Though Phoenix has been silent for several years, the information it sent back is crucial to our current knowledge of Mars and analysis of the data it supplied will continue for some time to come.