Dirt Digger Rocketing Toward Mars

The Associated Press
Saturday, August 4, 2007; 2:41 PM

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- A robotic dirt and ice digger rocketed toward Mars on Saturday, beginning a 422 million-mile journey that NASA hopes will culminate next spring in the first ever landing within the red planet's Arctic Circle.

The Phoenix Mars Lander blasted off before dawn, precisely on time, hurtling through the clear moonlit sky aboard an unmanned Delta rocket. The rocket looked as though it was heading straight for Mars, a bright reddish dot in the eastern sky.

Peter Smith, the mission's principal scientist from the University of Arizona, ran out of the control center just before liftoff to watch from outside and took Mars' visibility as an auspicious sign for the spacecraft.

"It seemed to kind of get the scent there, you know, it was on its way," Smith said with a laugh. "Sort of like a bloodhound, it's going to find Mars."

Other researchers, such as Michael Hecht with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, jammed the beach. They shouted out the final 10 seconds of the countdown and hooted and hollered "Go, baby!" then toasted with champagne.

Not quite six hours later, the Phoenix Mars Lander was already 365,000 miles from Earth and had settled into a cruising speed of more than 12,000 mph. Everything seemed to be working fine, mission officials said.

"Next stop is Mars," exulted Doug McCuistion, director of NASA's Mars exploration program.

If all goes as planned _ a big if considering only five of the world's 15 attempts to land on Mars have succeeded _ the spacecraft will set down on the Martian Arctic plains on May 25, 2008, and spend three months scooping up soil and ice, analyzing the samples in minuscule ovens and mixing bowls.

The Phoenix Mars Lander won't be looking for evidence of life on Mars but rather traces of organic compounds in the baked and moistened samples, which would be a possible indicator of conditions favorable for life, either now or once upon a time.

If organic compounds are present on Mars, they're more likely to have been preserved in ice. That's why NASA is aiming for the planet's high northern latitudes, where ice is almost certainly lurking just beneath the surface.

Only about six inches of soft red soil should cover the ice, and so the digger shouldn't have to probe too deeply. The ice is expected to be as hard as concrete, and a drill on the scoop will help gather enough frozen samples. Some dirt and ice samples will be baked and their vapors analyzed. Other soil samples will be mixed with onboard water and the muddy soup examined by onboard microscopes.

"We're really going there just to understand whether the conditions might have been hospitable for microbial life at some point," said the University of Arizona's William Boynton, lead scientist for the oven experiment.

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