Orbiter captures Phoenix probe's descent to Mars

Mon May 26, 2008 5:10pm EDT
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By Irene Klotz

PASADENA, California (Reuters) - A sharp-eyed Mars orbiter snapped an image of sister probe Phoenix descending through Martian skies toward a polar landing site to search for water and assess conditions for life, mission managers said on Monday.

Phoenix touched down at 4:53 p.m. PDT (7:53 p.m. EDT/2353 GMT) on Sunday, becoming the first spacecraft to reach a polar region of Mars. Problems during descent doomed NASA's first polar lander in 1999.

The unprecedented image, taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as a result of careful planning and good luck, shows the small probe dangling beneath its parachute.

Features of the planet's face, including polygon-shaped patterns in the frozen arctic soil, can be seen faintly in the background.

The shapes are of interest to scientists who plan to use Phoenix to dig beneath what is expected to be a thin layer of soil to sample underlying ice. They want to learn if the water was ever liquid, which is believed to be necessary for life.

So far, the Phoenix science team has had only a tantalizing glimpse of the landing site from an onboard camera that has completed only a low-resolution sliver of a planned 360-degree panoramic image.

The probe is using two satellites -- Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey -- to communicate with controllers on Earth.

"We're particularly interested in seeing what's in our digging area," lead scientist Peter Smith told reporters at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, which oversees the mission.   Continued...

<p>This artist's concept depicts NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander a moment before its planned touchdown on the arctic plains of Mars. REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Calech/University of Arizona/Handout</p>