Technology & Science

Phoenix probe sends first images from Mars

A NASA spacecraft with a Canadian-built weather station aboard sent its first pictures from the Red Planet after safely touching down Sunday.

A NASA spacecraft with a Canadian-built weather station aboard sent its first pictures from the Red Planet after safely touching down Sunday.

NASA's Phoenix spacecraft landed in the northern polar region of Mars to begin three months of examining a site chosen for its likelihood of having frozen water within reach of the lander's robotic arm. (NASA, JPL-Caltech, University of Arizona)

The first pictures from the Mars Phoenix Lander showed the space probe in good condition after its 10-month journey, in which it travelled 640 million kilometres.

They also showed the first glimpse of the valley floor NASA expects to be the site of water-rich permafrost.

"Over the next few days, we'll be getting the whole scene filed in," said the Phoenix mission's chief scientist, Peter Smith. "We've only looked at one little sliver of the Martian surface, but it's exactly what we wanted, and we couldn't be more excited."

Phoenix's successful landing is a relief for NASA since Mars has a reputation for swallowing spacecraft. Only five of 11 previous U.S. attempts to land spacecraft on Mars have succeeded.

The spacecraft approached Mars at a speed of about 20,000 kilometres an hour and made the difficult descent described by NASA officials as "seven minutes of terror," at about 7:53 p.m. ET on Sunday. When it entered the atmosphere, it used superheated friction with the atmosphere, a strong parachute and a set of retrorockets to make its three-legged standstill touchdown on the surface, NASA said.

During the robotic science lab's 90-day mission, it will study the planet's frozen water for evidence of carbon-containing chemicals, digging into the ice-rich soil with the lander's robotic arm.

It will also monitor the planet's arctic-region weather from the surface for the first time using the Canadian-built Meteorological Station, or Met, which can monitor changes in water abundance, dust, temperature and other variables in the Martian atmosphere.

This image shows a polygonal pattern in the ground near NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander, similar in appearance to icy ground in the Arctic regions of Earth. This is an approximate-color image taken shortly after landing by the spacecraft's surface stereo imager. ((NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona) )

The Canadian Space Agency and a team headed by York University — and including contributions from the University of Alberta, Dalhousie University, the Geological Survey of Canada and instrument-maker Optech — will oversee the science operations of the station, which was built by Canadarm maker MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., also known as MDA, of Richmond, B.C.

Doug McCuistion, the head of NASA's Mars exploration program, said digging will start later this week after the Phoenix lander has conducted a series of system checks. but he said the space probe has already begun getting a lay of the land.

"The Canadian contribution is already sending science data back to us, and the stereo imager is starting to take stills as well ... so there's a lot of science that's going to start," he told CBC News.

The Phoenix was launched aboard a Delta II rocket in August 2007.

With files from the Associated Press