Mars pictures stun scientists

Scientists were dazzled today by the first pictures from the Phoenix lander after its safe arrival on the surface of Mars.

Hours after touchdown it was able to give them their first-ever glimpse of the Red Planet’s high northern latitudes.

The flood of images sent back by Phoenix revealed a landscape similar to what can be found in Earth’s permafrost regions – geometric patterns in the soil likely related to the freezing and thawing of ground ice.

“This is a scientist’s dream, right here on this landing site,” principal investigator Peter Smith said.

Phoenix landed on Mars after a 10-month, 422 million-mile journey. After a week checking out its science instruments, the lander will begin a 90-day digging mission to study whether the northern polar region has the raw ingredients needed for life to emerge, including ice suspected to lie beneath the surface.

Phoenix joins the twin rovers on the Martian surface, which have been exploring the equatorial plains since 2004. Unlike the mobile rovers, Phoenix was designed to stay in one spot and dig trenches in the soil.

Early indications show the lander is healthy, NASA said. The images confirm the lander unfurled its solar panels, hoisted its weather mast and unwrapped the protective covering of its eight-foot-long robotic arm.

Mission control erupted in cheers when a radio signal from Phoenix was detected after a plunge through the atmosphere that required the lander to slow itself down from more than 12,000 mph to a 5 mph touchdown using a combination of friction, parachute and thrusters.

It was the first successful soft landing on Mars since the twin Viking landers touched down in 1976. Rovers Spirit and Opportunity used a combination of parachutes and cushioned air bags to bounce to the surface four years ago.

Phoenix’s descent was nearly flawless. The only slight hitch came when it opened its parachute seven seconds later than planned, causing the spacecraft to settle slightly away from the intended target.

Phoenix planted its three legs in a broad, shallow valley littered with pebble-size rocks that should not pose any hazard to the spacecraft.

During its prime mission, Phoenix will dig through layers of soil to reach the ice, believed to be buried inches to a foot deep.

It will study whether the ice melted during a time in Mars’ recent past and will analyse soil samples for traces of organic compounds, which would be a possible indicator of conditions favourable for primitive life. Phoenix is not equipped to detect past or present alien life.

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