• 73°

Spacecraft reveals look at Mars’ polar region

By ALICIA CHANG
AP Science Writer

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — NASA’s newest outpost in the solar system is a polygon-cracked terrain in Mars’ northern polar region believed to hold a reservoir of ice beneath.

Hours after the Phoenix Mars Lander softly landed Sunday in the Martian arctic plains, it dazzled scientists with the first-ever glimpse of the Red Planet’s high northern latitudes.

A flood of images sent back by Phoenix revealed a landscape similar to what can be found in Earth’s permafrost regions ó geometric patterns in the soil likely related to the freezing and thawing of ground ice.

“This is a scientist’s dream, right here on this landing site,” principal investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson said in a post-landing news conference.

Phoenix landed on Mars after a 10-month, 422 million-mile journey. After a week checking out its science instruments, the lander will begin a 90-day digging mission to study whether the northern polar region possesses the raw ingredients needed for life to emerge.

Phoenix joins the twin rovers on the Martian surface, which have been exploring the equatorial plains since 2004. Unlike the mobile rovers, Phoenix was designed to stay in one spot and dig trenches in the soil.

Early indications show the lander is healthy, said Barry Goldstein, project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The images confirm the lander unfurled its solar panels, hoisted its weather mast and unwrapped the protective covering of its 8-foot-long robotic arm. It’ll be several days before the arm will be unstowed.

“Everything just worked like a charm,” said Goldstein, who kept up a JPL tradition by passing out bags of lucky peanuts on landing day.

Mission control erupted in cheers when a radio signal from Phoenix was detected after a hair-raising plunge through the atmosphere that required the lander to slow itself down from over 12,000 mph to a 5 mph touchdown using a combination of friction, parachute and thrusters.

Mission managers pumped their fists and hugged one another after the confirmation signal was received.

“They will be remembered forever that they are the first people to explore the polar region of Mars. There’s no telling what discoveries would be seen over the next 90 days,” said JPL director Charles Elachi.

It’s the first successful soft landing on Mars since the twin Viking landers touched down in 1976. Rovers Spirit and Opportunity used a combination of parachutes and cushioned air bags to bounce to the surface four years ago.

Phoenix avoided the fate of another polar explorer, the Mars Polar Lander, which crashed into the Martian south pole after prematurely shutting off its engines in 1999. Phoenix inherited the hardware of a lander that was canceled after the Polar Lander disaster and carried similar instruments flown on the ill-fated 1999 mission.

Phoenix’s descent was nearly flawless. The only unexpected turn occurred when it opened its parachute seven seconds later than planned, causing the spacecraft to settle slightly downrange from the bull’s-eye target, said Ed Sedivy, program manager at Lockheed Martin Corp., which built the spacecraft.

Phoenix planted its three legs in a broad, shallow valley littered with pebble-size rocks that should not pose any hazard to the spacecraft, project managers said.

“I know it looks a little like a parking lot, but that’s a safe place to land. There’s not any big rocks,” Smith said.

During its prime mission, Phoenix will dig through layers of soil to reach the ice, believed to be buried inches to a foot deep. It will study whether the ice melted during a time in Mars’ recent past and will analyze soil samples for traces of organic compounds, which would be a possible indicator of conditions favorable for primitive life. Phoenix is not equipped to detect past or present alien life.

The $420 million Phoenix mission is led by University of Arizona and managed by JPL.

Comments

Comments closed.

High School

High school football: Hornets overpower South to secure playoff spot

Crime

Jeffrey MacDonald won’t be released despite deteriorating health

Business

Amazon warehouse workers reject union in Alabama

Nation/World

Ex-NFL player’s brain to be probed for trauma-related harm after Rock Hill shootings

Education

Duke University to require COVID vaccinations for fall term

Education

Cooper OKs bill offering K-12 students summer school option

High School

High school football: Record night for Pinckney as East cruises; Carson wins thriller in OT

Nation/World

D-Day survivor, WWII torch bearer Ray Lambert dies at 100

Nation/World

Prince Philip was always defined by role as husband of British queen

BREAKING NEWS

One dead, several injured after head-on collision in China Grove

Crime

Man, woman charged for selling drugs to undercover deputies

Crime

Blotter: Rowan County man charged with indecent liberties with children

Local

Spencer town board gets look at Park Plaza progress

Business

‘Applicant market’: Unemployment rate improving as businesses hire more workers

Local

National, local business leaders praise Salisbury’s initiative to support Black-owned operations

Nation/World

Tillis has prostate cancer surgery

Coronavirus

Adverse reactions surface from Johnson & Johnson vaccine

Nation/World

Expert: Lack of oxygen killed George Floyd, not drugs

Local

Quotes of the week

Nation/World

Biden seeks crackdown on homemade firearms

Nation/World

Victim of former NFL player’s rampage wrote of faith, life’s fragility

News

Wrongly imprisoned man gets $750,000

High School

West falls to Statesville, finishes second in NPC

Education

Middle, high school students head back to classes full time