Thanks to the ingenuity and hard work of NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of Arizona, as of Sunday the United States has a new outpost in space, a 900-pound, three-legged research station comfortably settled in the far north of Mars.
After a 10-month, roundabout 422 million-mile journey from Earth, the Phoenix Mars Lander, using a parachute and thrusters, slowed from 12,000 mph to 5 and began a new era in Mars exploration. It had to be a hairy moment for Phoenix's handlers back on Earth. The landing took seven minutes but since it takes 15 minutes for a signal to reach Mars, the technicians were helpless to intervene if something went wrong.
And there's much that can go wrong. Six of the 11 missions to Mars have ended in failure and this spacecraft is a lineal descendant of, and shares many of the same parts as, the 1999 Mars Polar Lander that simply disappeared, hence the name Phoenix.
But Phoenix not only landed intact but immediately got to work, deploying its solar panels, raising its weather mast and beaming photos back to Earth. (The photos are available at http://phoenix.lpl.Arizona.edu.)
The site was chosen because it is relatively flat and featureless and also because it is believed water ice lies close enough to the surface of Phoenix's robotic arm to dig it out and test it for traces of organic compounds, a sign that life may have existed on the Red Planet and may still exist, although in really primitive form.
The mission is intended to last three months. But who knows? The two little robot rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, landed on Mars in 2004 for a three-month mission and they're still trundling around today.