NASA Probe Sends First Pictures from Martian Arctic

A NASA probe sent back never-before-seen pictures of Mars' north pole Monday, in the most ambitious mission to date to find life-sustaining minerals on the Red Planet.

The NASA probe sent back never-before-seen pictures of Mars' north pole Monday, in the most ambitious mission to date to find life-sustaining minerals on the Red Planet.(AFP iactiv)

After NASA's Phoenix Mars probe made a near perfect landing at the Martian polar region late Sunday, scientists pored over images revealing a desolate frozen tundra.

"We can see cracks in the troughs that make us think the ice is still modifying the surface," said Peter Smith, a lead scientist on the project. "We see fresh cracks. Cracks can't be old. They would fill in," he said.

Scientists said they were also excited about the images taken by the probe during its descent late Sunday into the atmosphere of the Red Planet.

"I'm floored. I'm absolutely floored," said Phoenix Project manager Barry Goldstein of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, as he reviewed the dramatic images.

Phoenix on Monday was to test several of its instruments and systems, while continuing to transmit back to Earth images of its surroundings.

The pictures from the probe confirmed that the solar arrays needed for the mission's energy supply had unfolded properly, as the craft's batteries would have run out in about 30 hours.

The photos also showed masts for the stereo camera and weather station had swung into vertical position as planned, and showed the spacecraft's footpad planted on the dusty surface as well polygonal patterns on the ground that looked similar to icy arctic regions on Earth.

The flat Martian valley floor is expected to have water-rich permafrost within reach of the lander's robotic arm.

"Seeing these images after a successful landing reaffirmed the thorough work over the past five years by a great team," Goldstein told reporters.

After a nine-month journey from Earth, the Phoenix probe touched down in a relatively flat target area.

As planned, Phoenix stopped transmitting signals one minute after landing and focused its limited battery power on opening its solar arrays, and other critical activities.

But a key task still ahead was the first use of the lander's robotic arm, which was planned for Tuesday.

The backhoe-like arm, 2.35 meters (7.7 feet) long, is designed to dig trenches up to one meter (3.3 feet) deep for samples of soil and water ice.

The arm will deliver the samples to instruments aboard the lander for detailed chemical and geological analysis.

The robotic arm also carries a box-shaped camera with a double Gauss lens system like that in 35mm cameras, and two lighting assemblies.

This will take images of the surrounding area and of samples the arm picks up.

Another camera device is the surface stereo imager, what NASA calls Phoenix's "eyes." Sitting two meters (6.6 feet) above the ground, the SSI will produce high-definition and panoramic images of the surrounding landscape.

Its stereo capability will help give scientists on Earth three-dimensional views of the work the robotic arm does. It can also be turned vertically to take images that will provide information on atmospheric particles.

"Only five of our planet's 11 previous attempts to land on the Red Planet have succeeded," said Ed Weiler, NASA associate administrator. "In exploring the universe, we accept some risk in exchange for the potential of great scientific rewards."

Working in the flat circumpolar region known as Vastitas Borealis -- akin to northern Canada in Earth's latitude -- Phoenix, with a panoply of high-tech equipment, will over three months dig below the surface to probe the icy ground for signs of liquid water and organic, life-supporting minerals.

Given that Mars ' polar region is subject to Earth-like seasonal changes, the scientists think that, like on Earth, the Martian arctic might have a geological record of a warmer, habitable climate.

The team had been worried about the high risk of the project, with a roughly 50 percent failure rate on all Mars missions since the Soviet Union launched the first one in 1960.

Source: AFP

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