Feature

Phoenix's search for life on Mars

NASA’s Phoenix spacecraft landed gently on a pebble-strewn, frozen plain near Mars’ north pole this week, beginning a mission to search for water, organic compounds, and evidence of life beyond Earth. After a 10-month, 422-m

NASA’s Phoenix spacecraft landed gently on a pebble-strewn, frozen plain near Mars’ north pole this week, beginning a mission to search for water, organic compounds, and evidence of life beyond Earth. After a 10-month, 422-million-mile journey, Phoenix made the first successful soft landing on the Red Planet since 1976, using a parachute and thrusters to slow its descent. Six of 11 previous attempts by U.S., Russian, and British spacecraft to land on Mars ended in failure. Elated scientists were confident that Phoenix would find proof that plenty of water lurks beneath Mars’ surface. “There’s ice under this surface,” said Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, the mission’s principal investigator. “I guarantee it.”

Phoenix’s robotic arm will dig as deep as 19 inches into the permafrost in search of water ice; soil samples will be warmed in small ovens and checked for water vapor and carbon compounds, which are the basic building blocks of life. Scientists believe that Mars was once warmer and wetter, and that it’s possible that microbes continue to exist in wet zones below the planet’s surface.

“Why explore Mars?” said the Baltimore Sun in an editorial. “Because human beings have always gazed up at the night and wondered, ‘What’s out there?’ We are fortunate to live to see that question begin to be answered.” Small-minded critics who complain that the $457 million cost of this mission should have been spent on Earth are missing the larger point. “A great nation should be able to provide the necessities of government and nourish a spirit of adventure.”

It’s important to remember that several previous missions to Mars crashed and burned, said the Arizona Daily Star. Yet NASA scientists persevered, working round-the-clock for five years to fix their mistakes and redesign Phoenix so it would safely reach the planet. There’s a lesson there for humanity, as we confront such seemingly insurmountable problems as the need for new energy sources, food shortages, and AIDS. “The spirit that drives us to explore space is the same spirit that compels people to extend their hearts to others in need, to solve problems in our own world. If we can get to Mars, we can do anything.”

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