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US Phoenix Space Probe Lands on Mars

Watch slideshow of NASA images from Phoenix Mars Lander

The U.S. space agency's Phoenix space probe has landed successfully near Mars' northern pole to begin a three-month mission to explore Martian soil and look for buried ice. VOA's Jessica Berman reports engineers and scientists breathed a sigh of relief late Sunday following a challenging landing and marveled at some early images Phoenix sent back to Earth.

Mission controllers at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California watched with white knuckles as Phoenix made its descent into the Martian atmosphere.

They employed a series of complicated maneuvers to slow the spacecraft from a speed of almost 21,000 kilometers per hour to eight kilometers per hour to make a soft landing on the Red Planet.

After seven long minutes, when lander's three legs finally touched soil on Mars, cheers erupted in the control room.

"Phoenix has landed. Phoenix has landed. Welcome, to [the] northern face of Mars," the controller said.

A short time later, Phoenix began sending back the first images of the Martian surface.

" We're looking at a surface of Mars we've never seen before. This is a part of a planet that we've only seen from orbit. Now we're up close," McCleese said.

Daniel McCleese is Chief Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Lab.

"We don't see a lot of rocks. We see what looks like surface that might have been moderated, modulated configured in part by ice action," McCleese said.

Phoenix traveled almost 680 million kilometers in 296 days to reach Mars. The spacecraft will use its 2.5-meter robotic arm to scoop up soil samples and collect underground ice, or permafrost, to see whether there's evidence life ever existed on the Red Planet.

Scientists do not expect to find any liquid water at the landing site near the northern pole because the climate is too frigid. But they believe any raw ingredients of life could be preserved in the ice.