The Phoenix Mars Lander will touch down on the Martian surface on May 25, where it will probe the soil for signs of past life and touch Martian water (in the form of subsurface ice) for the first time in human history. At a press conference I attended this morning, NASA's engineers explained how they are rocking it old-school, using tech from some of the scrapped Mars missions earlier in this decade and dropping to the surface with thrusters and landing legs instead of air bags. Phoenix gives new meaning to the term "retro rockets."
In the wake of the failure of the Mars Polar Lander in 2001, all Mars missions on NASA's docket were canceled. Engineers went over the lander tech from the canceled mission piece by piece, fixing all known problems. The Phoenix Lander is a rejuvenated form of that technology, something Mars Program Director Doug McCuistion characterized as, "reusing money that NASA and the American taxpayers already invested in this mission." The landing site is farther north than any previous Martian lander mission - it's roughly analogous to landing in the Canadian north. It won't land on the actual polar ice of Mars, but nearby, where scans have revealed the soil is made of 30-60 percent permanent ice.
Once in place, the lander will extend a 6-foot robot arm to dig down a foot and a half into the Martian soil. It can analyze samples with a microscope or an oven that will reveal the chemical and mineral makeup of the material. The form that the subsurface ice takes will reveal if a warmer Martian climate in the past allowed for liquid surface water. And if the retro thruster method of landing works, it could pave the way for larger, heavier landers in the future. It represents an updates pulse thrust version of the thruster technology last used on the Viking landers of the 1970s. Image by: NASA.