The Phoenix Mars mission, launched in August 2007, is designed to answer three questions:

  1. Can the Martian arctic support life?
  2. What is the history of water at the landing site?
  3. How is the Martian climate affected by polar dynamics?

To help answer these questions, an eight foot robust robotic arm will dig through the Martian soil to the water ice layer underneath Phoenixand will deliver the soil samples to on board experiments utilizing miniature ovens and a mass spectrometer to provide chemical analysis of trace matter; a chemistry lab-in-a-box will characterize the soil and ice chemistry; and imaging systems including an atomic force microscope will be employed.

The Canadian Space Agency will deliver a meteorological station, marking their first involvement in a mission to Mars. The station will provide data on temperature, pressure, humidity and wind speed.

The search for one of the necessary building blocks needed to support life includes the hope to find complex organic molecules in the ice-rich soil of the Martian arctic. Phoenix will pave the way for future robotic missions and ultimately, human exploration of the planet.

As of February 27, Phoenix is 87 days from landing on Mars, scheduled for May 25, 2008. The first of NASA’s low cost Scout missions, it will utilize components from two unsuccessful Mars missions; the Mars polar lander and the lander spacecraft built for the Mars Surveyor 2001 program.

During atmosphere entry, the spacecraft will be protected by an air-shield. As the speed of descent drops, it will be jettisoned and a parachute deployed. Descent engines will fire at 1,870 feet (570m) above the surface. Twelve thrusters will provide controlled bursts to gently land the spacecraft near the Martian arctic circle.

The data from the spacecraft will be relayed to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey spacecraft for transmission back to Earth.