May 27, 2008

Phoenix Mars Lander Spotted from Space

This story was updated at 4:13 p.m. EDT.

Calif. A spacecraft orbiting Mars has photographed the Phoenix Mars Lander on
the surface of the red planet, NASA scientists announced today.

controllers also said the mission seems to have hit its first snag as the radio
on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which communicates with Phoenix,
has shut itself off due to an unknown problem. Despite this setback, Phoenix
seems to be doing just fine.

"Phoenix is
healthy, everything is fine," said Fuk Li, manager of the Mars Exploration
Laboratory at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

The radio
shutdown prevented mission scientists from sending Phoenix its instructions for
the day this morning, as well as from receiving another set of images from the
lander. MRO controllers are working on the problem now, and hope to have it
fixed for the next scheduled link-up this evening.

If the
radio fix goes well, mission scientists will start attempting to move the
lander's robotic arm tomorrow. A few days later, they will likely start
practicing scooping up soil and in about a week, they may start delivering
their first samples to the lander's instruments.

in the north polar regions of Mars in the Vastitas Borealis plains
on Sunday evening. The $420-million mission, which launched in August, plans to
dig down to the rock-hard layers of water ice thought to lie under the Martian
soil near the planet's north pole. It will test the soil and ice for signs that
the water was once liquid to see if it could have created a habitable zone for
microbial life at some point in the past.

The color
image the MRO's HiRISE camera took on Monday showed
, with its fan-like solar arrays visible. The image also showed two
black spots that appear to be the jettisoned heat shield and a bounce mark it
may have made, as well as the lander's parachute, which appeared as a white
about 300 meters away from the lander.

thrilled with these images," said HiRISE principal investigator Alfred McEwen
of the University of Arizona. HiRISE will likely take more images of the lander
and the surrounding terrain throughout the mission.

Phoenix was
able to send back more images last night, including one of its robotic arm,
which showed that the biobarrier that protected it during its flight had more
fully deployed since the previous day. The lander also took more images of the
landing site terrain, this time to the south of Phoenix. They showed a series
of low hills about 5.5 miles (9 kilometers) away, which indicate clear skies on

"That means
that there's not much dust in the atmosphere; it's a very clear day," said
Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith, also of the University of Arizona.

have also been able to more accurately pinpoint Phoenix's landing spot. The new
estimate of the lander's position shows that "we really landed in the spot the
scientists were looking for," said JPL Navigation Team Chief Brain Portock.

The landing
spot still looks largely devoid of rocks, which is perfect for digging, Smith
said. "All of this is prime digging area," he said.

radio glitch has delayed Phoenix's schedule by a day, mission scientists said,
but they noted that Phoenix has a default set of instructions it follows when
it doesn't receive any new commands in the morning.

controllers are unable to fix the radio problem this evening, commands will be
sent to Phoenix tomorrow morning via the Mars Odyssey orbiter, mission
controllers said.

next Phoenix mission briefing will be broadcast live on NASA TV at 2:00 p.m.
EDT (1900 GMT) on Wednesday, May 28. Click
Phoenix mission coverage and a link