Phoenix set to fly on hunt for Martians

A space probe is due to blast off tomorrow to begin the biggest ever search for life on Mars. Nasa’s Phoenix Mars Lander will dig into the Red Planet’s icy soil to look for evidence of past or present microbe-sized aliens.

It will be the first ever bid to touch and analyse frozen water that orbiting probes have discovered lying just beneath the martian surface. Scientists want to see if it has provided a habitat for simple life.

Today, the craft is sitting on top of a 13-storey high Delta II rocket stack in Florida waiting for launch into Earth orbit. From there it will be pushed onto a nine-month, 422 million mile journey to Mars, arriving on May 25 next year.

The probe is due to land in the northern plains, in an area known as Vastitas Borealis – Mars’s equivalent of Alaska. Once there, it will have three months to claw into the martian dirt before winter sets in and its solar panels lose power.

An international team has contributed the most sophisticated set of laboratory tools ever sent to Mars. They include a robotic arm, camera, stereo imager, microscope and weather station plus instruments to discover the chemical make-up of ice and soil. British scientists from Imperial College London and Bristol University will be directly involved in the mission.

Principal Investigator Peter Smith, of the University of Arizona, said: “Our instruments are specially designed to find evidence for periodic melting of the ice and to assess whether this large region represents a habitable environment for Martian microbes.”

Phoenix is named after the mythical bird that rose from the ashes because it uses parts intended for an abandoned mission to Mars from 2001. It is set to lift off as a dust storm rages on Mars, threatening the two robot rovers Spirit and Opportunity. The storm is expected to have blown itself out before Phoenix arrives.

You can find the official Phoenix mission website here.

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