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Phoenix Spacecraft Touches Down On Mars

At 7.53pm (Eastern time) on Sunday, Phoenix parachuted softly to the surface of Mars. The spacecraft sped through the Martian atmosphere at speeds of 12,000 mph with temperatures on its heat shield reaching 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit.

The safe landing ends the craft’s 422 million mile journey through space, a distance that took 10 months to cover. It is the first successful Mars landing without airbags since 1976. Phoenix relied on friction, a parachute and thrusters to slow it down before landing, rather than the airbags that have been used previously (both of the rovers currently exploring the planets equatorial plains landed using this airbag method).

Phoenix is on a mission to test for signs of life on Mars. Previous tests for organic chemicals on Mars were carried out by the twin Viking missions in 1976, however, these came up empty.

The spacecraft is expected to deploy a 7.7-foot robotic arm in the next few days, which will dig into the soil. Among other things, Phoenix is looking for carbon and hydrogen molecules, the presence of which could greatly support some scientists’ beliefs that there was once life on the red planet.

Phoenix relied on electricity from solar panels during the spacecraft’s cruise stage. Batteries are now providing electricity until the lander’s own pair of solar arrays spread open. The solar arrays will provide power for the 90-day digging mission to be carried out by Phoenix.

The team will be watching for the Sunday night transmission to confirm that masts for the stereo camera and the weather station have swung to their vertical positions.

Phoenix uses hardware from a spacecraft built for a 2001 launch that was canceled in response to the loss of a similar Mars spacecraft during a 1999 landing attempt. Researchers who proposed the Phoenix mission in 2002 saw the unused spacecraft as a resource for pursuing a new science opportunity.