Probe Lifts Off for Journey to Mars
By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) – An unmanned Delta rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station early on Saturday, sending a water-analyzing science probe on its way to Mars.
The Phoenix spacecraft, which lifted off at 5:26 am, is expected to reach the northern polar region of Mars on May 25.
"The Phoenix bird has risen. We're on our way to Mars," said the mission's lead scientist Peter Smith, with the University of Arizona.
He was not just speaking in metaphor. Phoenix, like the mythical bird that rises from its ashes, was pieced together from spare parts of predecessor Mars probes that never reached the red planet.
Less than six hours after liftoff, the spacecraft had nearly reached its cruising speed, soaring through space at 12,300 mph and about halfway to the Moon.
It is to travel some 420 million miles on a round-about route to Mars.
"By our assessment, Delta really nailed it for us," said Ed Sedivy, Phoenix program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co, which built the spacecraft.
Upon reaching Mars, Phoenix will use a heat shield, parachutes and thruster rockets to gently lower itself onto frozen soil, which is believed to cover a thick layer of water ice.
The probe has a 7.7 foot long (2.3m robotic arm, equipped with a drill and other instruments, to bore down into the ground and retrieve soil and ice samples for analysis.
The work will be done on site, within the body of the lander itself. Phoenix's lab includes eight ovens to bake samples so that a gas analyzer can detect vaporized gases.
The experiment should tell scientists several things about Mars' water, including whether it once was liquid and whether it contains any organic molecules. Both conditions would substantially increase the chances that Mars was suitable for life to develop.
Unlike the Viking missions of the mid-1970s, Phoenix's goal is not to search for life directly, but rather to ascertain if the conditions on Mars were or are suitable for indigenous microbial life to take root.