Shouts and screams came from all of those waiting for the Phoenix to land after it touched the surface of Mars yesterday. After its 10-month, 422 million mile journey it landed as expected on Sunday, May 25. The Phoenix didn’t bounce around as the Spirit and Opportunity did though. Instead, it came down using rocket thrusters. (The Viking 2 lander was the last craft to use thrusters to land on Mars in 1976.) Scientists are thrilled that it actually landed because only five of 13 attempts to land on Mars have succeeded. Phoenix used a parachute to slow its descent and then jettisoned its heat shield, turned over and used thrusters to land on the surface of the red planet.
Phoenix is expected to search for past water on the planet. It will use a robotic arm to scrape away layers of the topsoil to collect samples and if the icy surface is too hard for the blade of the scraper it will drill into the surface putting shreds of ice into the sampler. Phoenix also has an onboard microscope to examine the surface.
Phoenix’s main mission will probably be over when the sun sets on Mars’ North pole for the winter. If it succumbs to the harsh winters its mission will end. It is possible, however, that it may have a resurrection in the spring. If it powers up in the spring, the computers would resume communications with Earth and Phoenix will have a new life.