This artist's concept depicts the Phoenix lander on the surface of Mars near the Northern Polar Ice Cap. Round photovoltaic solar panels extend from the sides of the spacecraft, generating electrical power. The robotic arm (left) reaches out to scoop up soil samples for analysis. The thin green laser beam of the probe's LIDAR instrument shoots skyward, measuring dust in the Martian atmosphere.
Click on image for full size
Image courtesy of NASA/JPL/UA/Lockheed Martin.

Phoenix Mars Lander - Instruments and Mission Objectives

The Phoenix Mars Lander is a space mission sent by NASA to the North Polar Region of Mars. This page describes the instruments aboard the spacecraft and the mission objectives for Phoenix. Click here to read an overview of the Phoenix mission on a different page.

Unlike other recent Mars landers, Phoenix was not a rover. The spacecraft stayed put on the Martian surface, using a robotic arm to scoop up and analyze soil and ice in the immediate vicinity of the lander. In 2002 an earlier mission, the Mars Odyssey Orbiter, apparently detected large amounts of water ice just below the surface of the vast plains surrounding the Northern Polar Ice Cap of Mars. Phoenix found and analyzed these ice deposits, in hopes of clarifying the history of water in the Martian arctic and of determining the likelihood that this layer could help support the possible existence of life. Liquid water does not currently exist on the surface of Mars, though water ice and water vapor can be found above ground. However, scientists are pretty sure that liquid water did exist on the surface in the distant past, and may have even been around as recently as 100,000 years ago. Variations in the orbit and axial tilt of the Red Planet periodically alter the climate of Mars; scientists wonder whether ancient Martian life (if any ever existed) in the form of hardy microbial spores might lie dormant in a subsurface ice layer, "waiting" for warmer times during which they might thrive. The Phoenix mission was designed to detect and chemically analyze subsurface ice, testing its suitability to sustain living things. This approach is part of NASA's "follow the water" campaign to search for life on Mars.

The Phoenix lander is named after the mythical bird that bursts into flames, but then is reborn from its own ashes. Phoenix uses some parts from the Mars Surveyor 2001 Lander spacecraft (cancelled in 2000, but carefully stored at Lockheed Martin) and from the unsuccessful 1999 Mars Polar Lander mission. The lander carried a robotic arm, equipped with a camera, that could reach out up to 2.35 meters (almost 8 feet) and dig down about half a meter (about 20 inches) to retrieve soil and ice samples. Phoenix had two suites of instruments to analyze the samples it dug up: the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA) and the Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA). TEGA included a high temperature furnace and a mass spectrometer that could measure the minerals, carbon dioxide, ice, and other materials in collected soil samples. MECA combined a wet chemistry lab, optical and atomic force microscopes, and a thermal and electrical conductivity probe. MECA could measure the biologic compatibility (such as whether the soil is to acidic or salty to support life, or is full of oxidants that destroy life) of Martian soil, both for possible Martian life and for possible future "visitors" from Earth. Phoenix also carried a Meteorological Station that took daily weather readings of temperature and air pressure, and included a LIDAR (Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging) to measure dust in the atmosphere. Finally, Phoenix also had stereo cameras mounted on the main body of the lander that complemented the camera on the robotic arm.

Last modified February 4, 2010 by Randy Russell.

You might also be interested in:

Science, Evolution, and Creationism

How did life evolve on Earth? The answer to this question can help us understand our past and prepare for our future. Although evolution provides credible and reliable answers, polls show that many people turn away from science, seeking other explanations with which they are more comfortable....more

Martian Water

The presence of water near the surface of Mars, or lack of water, is a big factor in determining the climate of Mars, and the suitability of Mars to support life. Finding out what has happened to the water...more

An Overview of the History of Mars

The terrestrial planets formed by accretion of rocky material and volatiles out of the primitive solar nebula. As they finished forming, about 4 Billion Years ago, the surface continued to be bombarded...more

Salinity - Dissolved Salts, Measuring Salinity

One way to measure how much dissolved salt is in water is to look at the concentration of salt in the water. Concentration is the amount (by weight) of salt in water and can be expressed in parts per million...more

Martian Soils

Soils form through a complex interaction of the molecules of soil with particles and molecules of the atmosphere. Measurements of the soil contribute to an understanding of a planet's climate, weather,...more

Atmospheric Pressure

Pressure is an idea scientists use to describe how gases and liquids "push" on things. The atmosphere has pressure. If you imagine a column of air that is 1 inch square and goes from the Earth's surface...more

Martian Global Dust Storms

This image shows a local dust storm near the edge of the south polar cap. Viewing of this image at high resolution is recommended. This fascinating image shows dust swirling over a large area. Martian...more

Lower Atmosphere

The atmosphere of Mars is much thinner than that of Earth, with a surface pressure averaging 1/100th that at the surface of the Earth. Surface temperatures range from -113oC at the winter pole to 0oC...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA