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Mars lander gets a solid start

First images to arrive from Mars show the Red Planet's pebbly surface and that the lander's solar panels unfolded as planned.

The Mars Phoenix Lander parachutes down to Mars on Sunday, in this image captured by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

The first images from the Phoenix Mars Lander have confirmed that the solar panels needed for its energy supply unfolded as planned and that masts for its camera and weather station are in position.

A successful touchdown late Sunday was followed by the first pictures about two hours later. More images are expected Monday evening.

This is one of the first images captured by the Phoenix lander, showing the vast plains of the northern polar region of Mars. The image was taken in black and white, with the approximate color inferred from two filters. NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

The pictures "show a beautiful Martian landscape," Brent Shockley, Phoenix configuration and information management engineer, wrote in his blog Sunday night.

The landing of NASA's machine concluded a 422-million-mile journey that began last August. The Phoenix is on a three-month mission to determine whether ice below the surface ever thaws and whether some of the chemical ingredients needed for life are preserved in the soil.

"It's liquid water we're looking for," Peter Smith, of the University of Arizona at Tucson and principal investigator for the Phoenix mission, said during a press conference Monday on NASA TV. "Does the ice melt?"

Smith noted that the ground looks like the "active surface of the Arctic regions of Earth." Cracks in the soil show that surface is "active" because no dust or sand has filled in the cracks.

One particularly interesting photo comes from the NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which actually captured the lander as it was parachuting to Mars in the last leg of its long journey. Barry Goldstein, project manager of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, called that image "spectacular." The orbiter will act as a middleman communicator between the Phoenix and NASA.

At some point over the next few days, the lander's 7.7-foot robotic arm is scheduled to begin functioning. The robotic arm is set to collect the first soil samples in about a week.

The lander is expected to function for about 90 days with energy generated by the solar panels.

"Seven minutes of terror will be followed by three months of joy," a jovial Goldstein said during Monday's press conference, referring to the seven minutes of the final stage of landing.

But it is possible that the lander will function longer.

"We are going to operate till Mars freezes over," Goldstein joked.

Here is one of the octagonal solar panels, which open like handheld, collapsible fans on either side of the spacecraft. Beyond this view is a small slice of the north polar terrain of Mars. The image has been geometrically corrected, according to NASA. NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)