The next US mission to Mars was given the go-ahead by NASA yesterday, clearing the way for teams to begin preparing for the launch of the Phoenix mission in August 2007. The lander is designed to look for possible indicators of life, past or present, and scan the landing site for water ice, and potential habitats.
Phoenix, which will touch down in the Northern polar region of Mars, where there is good evidence of water ice close to the surface, is a stationary lander. Instead of roaming the surface like the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, it has a robotic arm that will dig into the Martian surface to collect samples for analysis.
The news will come as a blow, but not a surprise, to European space scientists, who had hoped that a European mission to Mars in 2013 would be the first to dig into the planet's icy crust.
The scientist behind the Beagle 2 mission, Professor Pillinger, had warned that this would happen, back in October 2004 when NASA rejected the idea of taking the Beagle 2 science package to Mars on its next visit. He said the decision meant Europe would now fall behind in space science, and that a later mission would be nothing more than "me too" science.
Phoenix will reach Mars in May 2008. Once it lands, the mission is designed to last for three months, during which time it will look for and measure volatiles, such as water and organic molecules.
The $386m mission incorporates the remains of two earlier failed missions: the 2001 Mars Surveyor lander, which was mothballed in 2000, and the Mars Polar lander mission. The Mars Surveyor is being resurrected for Phoenix, as are many of its scientific instruments. Experiments from the failed 1999 Polar Lander will also have a second chance on Phoenix. ®