Houston: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientists unveiled Phoenix, the next Mars lander, on Monday. The robotic mission is expected to begin its nine-month long journey to the red planet on August 3. Unlike the previous landers, 'Spirit' and 'Opportunity,' Phoenix will target the northern polar region of the planet where scientists expect to find water just below the surface of the dusty planet.
''The Phoenix mission will virtually explore the polar region on Mars and it'll be a robotic mission, but we can all participate from the Earth as we find for the first time what the environment is like on Mars where ice is near soil at the surface,'' said Phoenix Mission Science Investigator, Peter Smith.
Scientists expect the Phoenix to arrive on the Martian surface sometime next May.
NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander will dig into the icy soil of the red planet's northern plains to investigate whether frozen water near the Martian surface might periodically melt enough to sustain an environment fit enough to support living microbes.
The Phoenix will carry a set of advanced research tools never before used on Mars. A robotic arm 7.7 feet long will dig to the 'icy layer,' which is expected to lie within a few inches of the surface. A camera and conductivity probe on the arm will examine soil and any ice there. The arm will lift samples to two instruments on the lander's deck.
One of these instruments will use heating to check for volatile substances, such as water and carbon-based chemicals that are essential building blocks for life. The other will analyse the chemistry of the soil.
The Phoenix Mars lander will also be different from the previous Mars missions 'Opportunity' and 'Spirit' in the manner in which it will arrive on the planet. While the earlier missions had made so-called soft landings on inflated mattresses or 'balloons', Phoenix will land the old fashioned way, slamming into the Martian surface.
Phoenix will also carry a weather station and be able to send back information on the weather conditions at the northern polar ice cap.
With its flanking solar panels unfurled, the lander is about 18 feet wide and 5 feet long.