The Phoenix has landed
... on Mars! The Phoenix spacecraft landed successfully on the Red Planet just before 8:00 PM EDT this evening, a major accomplishment for the U.S. space program. The landing site was in the northern polar region of Mars, far from where the Spirit and Opportunity Mars vehicular probes landed in April 2004. Unlike those two prior Mars probes, which used novel but unpredictable balloon cushions, the Phoenix used the more traditional (and expensive) retro-rockets to make a soft landing. After waiting for the dust to settle (literally), the first photographic image was taken and sent back to Earth. See it for yourself at www.nasa.gov.
The main goal of the Phoenix mission is to determine whether water is present in significant quantities, and it is thought that water (or ice) is more likely to be found near the polar ice caps, which are composed mainly of dry ice -- carbon dioxide. The Phoenix's robotic arm will dig into the soil layer to gather samples for chemical analysis. President Bush has called for a renewed U.S. manned space exploration program, including an eventual trip to Mars, and the results of the Phoenix mission could have an impact on public support for such a huge undertaking. I'm generally in favor of a manned mission to Mars, as long as our long-term budget problems are adequately addressed.