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NASA Lander Sends Pictures of Mars Surface


Watch slideshow of NASA images from Phoenix Lander

NASA scientists are poring over photographs sent from the Phoenix spacecraft after it landed on Mars late Sunday. VOA's Brian Wagner reports the team is readying the craft to begin analyzing weather and soil conditions on the planet's surface.

The first images sent back from the Phoenix Mars Lander showed a barren landscape dotted with small rocks and pebbles, as well as a complex pattern of cracks and troughs. Scientists say the evidence of cracks and troughs is exciting because it suggests that ground ice is present, similar to areas of permafrost on Earth.

The team's principal investigator is Peter Smith of the University of Arizona. He says some of the troughs shown in the lander's photographs appear to have been freshly formed.

"This is just like the active surfaces in the arctic regions on Earth," said Peter Smith. "It implies you have an active surface, in other words the ice is still there and expanding and contracting with the seasons."

Smith says the lander is set to transmit new photographs once a day, gathering images of the entire area around the craft's landing zone.

The Phoenix landed with a combination of parachutes and thrusters late Sunday, ending its journey of 680 million kilometers to Mars which took nearly 300 days. The craft is expected to conduct a 90-day mission digging for signs of the raw ingredients for life in the planet's northern polar region.

In coming days, engineers are expected to ready the lander's equipment to begin analyzing the planet's weather and soil conditions.

Smith says probes on the lander will dig through layers of soil to study its composition and find ground ice believed to be several centimeters below the surface. He says one key hope of scientists is to find remains of organic life frozen in the ground ice.

"We are wondering on Mars is there any indication that organic materials are preserved in this ice," he said. "And probably the organic materials would have come from asteroids and comets that hit the surface of Mars over the last many eons."

Smith says the Phoenix mission targeted the planet's frozen polar region because warmer conditions elsewhere on the planet would break down the remains of any possible organic life and make them impossible to detect.

The Phoenix lander joins two other NASA probes on the surface of Mars - the Spirit and Opportunity exploration rovers - which landed in 2004.