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NASA's Phoenix to Look for Ice on Mars

An emissary from Earth has landed on Mars. NASA's Phoenix probe touched down near the Martian North Pole on Sunday shortly before 8 p.m. ET.

Unlike the successful rover missions that continue to roll around on the Martian surface, Phoenix will stay in one place for its 90-day mission. But it has brought sophisticated equipment that will help determine whether Mars could once have harbored life.

Phoenix is in a part of Mars no lander has yet explored. Peter Smith from the University of Arizona is the scientist in charge of the mission. He says all the landing missions to date have gone to the dry, equatorial zone on Mars, where much of the landscape hasn't changed in billions of years.

"By landing on the northern plains, we're looking at active processes that are taking place today," says Smith. Scientists know that there is water in the form of ice at the Martian poles. "And these active processes have to do with the expansion and contraction of that ice," he says. "We're going to see climate change written into the soils."

In addition to several cameras, Phoenix has onboard chemistry labs that will allow scientists to see what kinds of chemicals and minerals are in the polar soil. While the labs can't detect life, they can tell if conditions were once favorable to life, whether the water in the ice was too acidic or too salty for life to exist.

The Phoenix mission is intended to last 90 days. It may last a little longer, but not much. When the sun drops below the horizon during the Martian winter, there will be no way to recharge the lander's batteries. Once they drain completely, the mission is over.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Palca
Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. From 2011 to 2020 he produced stories that explored the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors as part of his series, Joe's Big Idea. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.