What happened to Polar Lander, the last Mars rover that NASA tried to land in the Martian polar region, where it hopes that the Phoenix rover will touch down on May 25? The mysterious fate of the lander that simply disappeared moments before reaching Mars has been the subject of both scientific and UFO-logy debates. Was it shot down by angry Martians dwelling at the pole? Did it encounter some strange magnetic phenomenon that disabled it? Or did it just malfunction? We may soon find out.
Phoenix, an even more badass version of the current Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, will hit the Martian north pole. (Sadly, it can't look for the dead Polar Lander, because that rover was headed for the South Pole.) If all goes as planned, it will immediately dig into the icy tundra and take samples to see what the deal is with all that ice. Could it be turned into potable water for future colonists?
To make sure nothing goes wrong with the landing — or at least to see what the hell happened if it does — three Earth-controlled satellites orbiting Mars will be watching Phoenix's descent into the ice. According to Discovery News:
Mars Odyssey will relay the descent and landing live, or what passes for live when the action takes place 171.5 million miles away. At that distance, radio signals traveling at the speed of light take 15.3 minutes to reach Earth. By the time flight controllers know if Phoenix began the descent through the planet's atmosphere, it should have already landed.You will be able to watch live satellite feeds from the Mars landing at the NASA website — well, what passes for live given the time lag. So frakkin cool.
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Europe's Mars Express are the backups. They will record signals from Phoenix during the descent and landing which can be relayed to Earth for later analysis.
Mars Probe Entourage Poised to Welcome Phoenix [Discovery News]