NASA extends Mars lander mission, search for water

Space agency scientists say that the Mars Phoenix Lander mission has been going so well that it plans to extend the lander's stay through the end of September, instead of August. The cost: $2 million.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
3 min read
Phoenix Lander
An artist's drawing shows how the Phoenix Lander would look on Mars. NASA/JPL

A correction was made to this story after it was published. See below for details.

NASA's planning to spend another month and $2 million on its Mars robotic lander mission to obtain more icy soil samples, study the weather, and size up the planet's suitability for human life.

In a press conference Thursday, NASA scientists said that the Mars Phoenix Lander mission has been going so well that it plans to extend the vehicle's stay through the end of September, instead of August. On May 25, the Phoenix landed more than 200 million miles away from Earth, on the edge of a volcano in the northern hemisphere of Mars, and has since confirmed the existence of frozen ice on the Red Planet.

Part of the goal of the extended mission is to continue studying icy soil samples in the area of the Lander. Just Wednesday, scientists said that the Phoenix's robotic arm picked up a sample of Mars soil and put it into its onboard oven--an act that prompted celebration among the project leads. Early analysis of the sample proved the existence of a small amount of H20 because the ice melted, but the scientists ultimately want to collect a sample with a larger composition of permafrost, they said.

"We're looking to understand the history of the ice, trying to figure out if it's ever melted, see if its chemistry has changed. Getting back this analysis, we'll hope to be able to answer questions like (whether this is) a habitable zone on Mars," said Victoria Hipkin, mission scientist for Phoenix Meteorological Station at the Canadian Space Agency.

NASA is particularly looking for organic materials, but it has yet to find them. One hypothesis is that the soil might contain a strong oxidant, according to one of the NASA scientists. Instead, it has found potassium--among other minerals--a clay-like component, and properties it has yet to identify.

Phoenix lander scoop and soil
The robotic arm of the Phoenix lander has been digging into Martian landscape in search of ice and water. The color inset shows a closeup of the red Martian soil. For a full photo gallery, click on the image. NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Max Planck Institute

One goal of the extended mission will be to dig two more trenches around the site of the lander and study their soil. NASA plans to name the trenches with fantasy names like its other ditches--Snow White and Goldilocks. The new ones will be named Cupboard and Neverland.

"We have lots more to explore within reach of the robotic arm," said Peter Smith, Phoenix's principal investigator from the University of Arizona at Tucson.

Phoenix is also giving the scientists their first details about weather in the Mars arctic. The extended mission will help NASA better understand seasonal changes from springtime in Mars, when it landed, to high summer, to the end of the mission in its fall time frame. For example, the team is using sophisticated sensors to measure the atmosphere's pressure, humidity, and winds. So far, the sensors have shown maximum wind speeds of 15 miles per hour on Mars.

One of the mission's requirements was to capture a color panoramic view of the landing site with its on-board 1-megapixel digital camera. The Phoenix team completed that task stitching together more than 400 images taken from the lander over a month's time. According to the team, it took about 15 relay passes to download the data--100 megabytes' worth--from the craft. The image confirmed water ice underneath the site of the lander.

Through August and September, the team plans to get a "Happily Ever After" panoramic image, with more than 1,500 high-resolution pictures stitched together from the site. NASA expects that collection of images will be about two-thirds of a gigabyte and take 100 orbital passes to download. The panoramas help bring context to the terrain and mission, and help the scientists pick future spots for investigation.

The significance of all this? "We've gotten to the point where we're pretty sure we found water, and determined it was H20. One of the things (with upcoming missions will be) moving away from finding water to a search for life," said Michael Meyer, chief scientist of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA.

Correction at 1:44 p.m. PDT: When it was published, this story misstated the Phoenix's distance from Earth, and mischaracterized the vehicle. It is a lander, and it touched down 200 million miles from Earth.