At fifty-three minutes past 6 pm, Central Standard Time, the Phoenix Lander confirmed to Mission Control that it landed in the northern polar region of Mars. The first successful landing without airbags to cushion the landing on the planet since Viking 2 landed in 1976. Thruster jets were used to control the landing. Over the next three months, its mission will be to use its robotic arm to dig for frozen water.

Phoenix 05.25.08

The photo at left is a picture of one of the feet of the lander and the photo below is of theĀ surrounding Martian landscape. Credit for the photo’s: NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ Univ. of Arizona.

During its 422-million-mile flight from Earth to Mars, which launched on August 4, 2007, Phoenix relied on electricity from solar panels during the spacecraft’s trip, known as the cruise stage. The cruise stage was jettisoned seven minutes before the lander, encased in a protective shell to protect against heat from entry into the thin Martian atmosphere, entered the Martian atmosphere proceeding toward the surface of the planet. Batteries provided electricity until the lander’s own pair of solar arrays spread open.

Another critical deployment will be the 7.7-foot-long robotic arm on Phoenix, which will not be attempted for at least two days. Scientists will use the robotic arm during the weeks ahead to obtain samples of soil and ice and put them into laboratory instruments on the lander deck.

Pulled by Mars’ gravity, Phoenix was speeding along at 12,700 mph before it entered the atmosphere, which slowed the craft so it could pop out a parachute and fire thruster rockets to glide softly to the ground.

The journey took 10 months and spanned a distance of 423 million miles. NASA attempted a landing on Mars’ south pole in 1999, but a problem developed during the final minutes of descent and ended the mission.

NASA canceled its next Mars lander but successfully deployed Spirit and Opportunity to the planet’s equatorial region to search for signs of past surface water.Mars landing area

Phoenix was created from spare parts out of the failed Polar Lander mission and a mothballed probe. Unlike the rovers, Phoenix did not bounce to the planet’s surface in airbags, which are not suitable for larger spacecraft.

Instead, like the 1970s-era Viking probes and the failed Polar Lander mission, Phoenix used a jet pack to lower itself to the ground and fold-out legs to land on.