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NASA Gets Green Light to Explore Red Planet
By Suzanne Freeman

lander
The Phoenix mission is a stationary lander shown here with the heat shield removed. The lander is sitting in an inverted or upside-down position, with the underside of the lander facing up.
(Photo: NASA/JPL/LMSS)
June 6, 2005—NASA's Mars Scout program has been given the green light to send its first probe to the Red Planet. The Phoenix mission will send a stationary lander with a robotic arm to dig down to the Martian ice layer. The soil samples will be analyzed for signs of water and life.

The Phoenix is scheduled to take off in August 2007. After nine months in space, it should land in the northern region of Mars in May 2008. The $386 million mission is the first of the Mars Scout program.

"The Phoenix mission explores new territory in the northern plains of Mars," said Peter Smith, the project's principal investigator. Smith said the Phoenix could lead to "discoveries relating to lives on our neighboring planet."

From the Ashes

True to its name, the Phoenix "rose from the ashes" of previous Mars missions, says NASA. (The Phoenix is a mythical bird that lives for 500 or 600 years before bursting into flames. It then rises from the ashes to begin another long life.)

It was originally part of the 2001 Mars Surveyor program. It was put in storage at a facility in Denver, Colorado, after the Mars Polar Lander disappeared near the planet's south pole in 1999.

After two years of work, the revived project will blast off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Mars Rover News

Meanwhile, the Mars rover Opportunity is on the move again. It was stuck nearly five weeks in a sand dune near the Meridiani Planum, a ripple-shaped dune of windblown dust and sand on Mars. NASA engineers spent the entire five weeks maneuvering the vehicle that was millions of miles away with controls in an Earth-bound control booth.

Opportunity and its companion Spirit have been on Mars for 16 months now. The twin robotic explorers landed on Mars in January 2004.