The Phoenix Mars Lander was the first mission to explore the Arctic region of Mars at ground level. Phoenix was launched from the Kennedy Space Centre aboard a Delta II rocket at 5:26 a.m. EDT on August 4, 2007. It landed near Mars's northern polar cap on May 25, 2008 in an area known as Vastitas Borealis, where it continued to operate successfully for more than five months (far beyond its planned 90-day lifespan).
Phoenix used its 2.35-metre robotic arm to dig samples of the Martian soil for analysis in its on-board laboratory. Among early results, it verified the presence of water-ice in the Martian subsurface, which NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter first detected remotely in 2002. Phoenix's cameras also returned more than 25,000 pictures from sweeping vistas to near the atomic level using the first atomic force microscope ever used outside Earth.
Phoenix's preliminary science accomplishments advance the goal of studying whether the Martian arctic environment has ever been favorable for microbes. Additional findings include documenting a mildly alkaline soil environment unlike any found by earlier Mars missions; finding small concentrations of salts that could be nutrients for life; discovering perchlorate salt, which has implications for ice and soil properties; and finding calcium carbonate, a marker of effects of liquid water.
The Phoenix Mission marked the first time that Canada, as a nation, landed on the surface of Mars. Canada's contribution to Phoenix was a meteorological station recorded the daily weather at the landing site. The weather station performed successfully throughout the mission, beginning just hours after landing. The weather station measured Mars' temperature and pressure, and probed clouds, fog and dust in Mars' lower atmosphere. Most significantly, the weather station's lidar instrument confirmed that it snows on Mars by detecting snowflakes falling from clouds about 4 kilometres above the spacecraft's landing site. The University of Aarhus in Denmark's wind sensor, known as a "telltale," perched at the top of the meteorological station's mast, also measured wind speed and direction and detected the presence of at least one dust devil at the landing site.
Phoenix Mission Logo (Image: NASA, University of Arizona, Isabelle Tremblay, CSA)
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