On "Dream" Terrain, Mars Lander Readies for Experiments

Victoria Jaggard in Pasadena, California
for National Geographic News
May 26, 2008

With the successful touchdown of the Phoenix Mars Lander on Sunday night, researchers are gearing up for the first surface-based study of the red planet's north pole.

Over the next few days the probe will analyze its surroundings and transmit data on the status of its onboard instruments so that scientists can tell if conditions are right for starting experiments.

"The first day it's going to be taking a lot of pictures and finding out where we are orientated," Diana Blaney, co-investigator for soil science at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told National Geographic News.

"We expect that by next Monday we'll transition to what's called nominal surface operations, and that's when we really start going full speed."

Ideal Terrain

The first images from Phoenix transmitted hours after landing are largely in black and white.

The pictures offer views of the craft that show the landing legs, solar arrays, and the 7.7-foot-long (2.3-meter-long) robotic arm are in good health.(See photos of the Mars lander's first "self portraits".)

A handful of landscape shots have researchers especially excited, because they reveal that the probe landed in ideal terrain for its mission.

Of particular interest are natural geometric formations called polygons found on Mars's poles. Similar looking polygons also form on Earth's poles due to cycles of water freezing and thawing in permafrost.

"I know it looks a little like a parking lot, but that's a safe place to land!" Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith, of the University of Arizona, said at a press briefing on Sunday night.

It's also the type of surface feature that can help researchers understand how water and carbon dioxide cycle through the soil.

"The surface doesn't exist in isolation. It actually breathes with the seasons," Smith said.

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