Washington : NASA's next Mars mission, Phoenix Mars Lander, will look beneath a frigid arctic landscape for conditions favourable to past or present life, the federal space agency has said.
Instead of roving to hills or craters, Phoenix will claw down into the icy soil of the Red Planet's northern plains. The robot will investigate whether frozen water near the Martian surface might periodically melt enough to sustain a liveable environment for microbes, NASA officials said at a mission preview news conference Monday.
To accomplish that and other key goals, Phoenix will carry a set of advanced research tools never before used on Mars.
First, however, it must launch from Florida during a three-week period beginning Aug 3, then survive a risky descent and landing on Mars next spring.
Researchers evaluating possible landing sites have used observations from Mars orbiters to find the safest places where the mission's goals can be met. The leading candidate site is a broad valley with few boulders at latitude equivalent to northern Alaska.
"Our 'follow the water' strategy for exploring Mars has yielded a string of dramatic discoveries in recent years about the history of water on a planet where similarities with Earth were much greater in the past than they are today," said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Programme.
"Phoenix will complement our strategic exploration of Mars by being our first attempt to actually touch and analyse Martian water – water in the form of buried ice," added McCuistion.
NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter found evidence in 2002 to support theories that large areas of Mars, including the arctic plains, have water ice within an arm's reach of the surface.
"Phoenix has been designed to examine the history of the ice by measuring how liquid water has modified the chemistry and mineralogy of the soil," said Peter Smith, the Phoenix principal investigator.