2008: a Martian odyssey

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The terror lasted seven minutes. This was the time it took for Nasa's Phoenix spacecraft to slow down from a screeching 12,600mph to a sedate walking pace – its final speed when it landed safely early yesterday on the pebble-strewn surface of Mars.

During those seven minutes, the Phoenix had to endure temperatures of 1,500C as it slammed through the Martian atmosphere, before deploying its braking parachute, jettisoning a protective shell and firing the 12 small retrorockets that finally delivered the softest of landings. It was the first successful soft landing on the Red Planet for 32 years and made all the more momentous as it successfully used technology which might well, one day, allow humans to land on Mars.

The first signal from Phoenix that confirmed its safe landing on Mars took an excruciating 15 minutes and 20 seconds to travel at the speed of light the 171 million miles between Mars and its nearest neighbour, Earth.

At 00.53am British summer time on 26 May, scientists at mission control in California detected the first signal from a motionless Phoenix spacecraft, which had spent the past 10 months hurtling through 422 million miles of space. It was only then that tearful scientists at Nasa could breathe a massive sigh of relief.

"In my dreams it couldn't have gone as perfectly as it went. It went right down the middle," said project manager Barry Goldstein in Mission Control at the Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena. "The hardest part is over. There's still a lot of drama left," said Dr Goldstein, who had kept up the JPL tradition of handing round "lucky peanuts" to his colleagues during tense moments, and who later tore up the contingency plans that would have been activated in the event of a mission failure.

The first pictures from Phoenix – the first from Mars's unexplored northern plain – showed a landscape of weird polygonal patterns woven into the Martian terrain like the stitches of a padded quilt – believed to be caused by the cyclical expansion and contraction of underground ice.

"We see the lack of rocks that we expected, we see the polygons that we saw from space, we don't see ice on the surface, but we think we will see it beneath the surface. It looks great to me," said Peter Smith of the University of Arizona in Tucson, the principal scientific investigator for the Phoenix mission.

Other images confirmed that the spacecraft's three feet were firmly planted on a stable surface and that its dust-free solar arrays had successfully unfurled to provide vital power. Only when the stereoscopic cameras panned to the distant horizon was it possible to envisage the flat enormity of this far north region of Mars, known as Vastitas Borealis.

Phoenix had risen from the ashes of a previous mission to Mars planned for 2001, which had to be abandoned because two earlier missions in 1999 had failed on two consecutive occasions. Indeed, only five of the previous 11 international attempts to land probes on Mars have succeeded, which made the success of Phoenix all the sweeter.

Ed Weiler, an associate administrator at Nasa headquarters in Washington, said that failure was always a possibility. "In exploring the universe, we accept some risk in exchange for the potential of great scientific rewards," he said.

The $457m (£231m) spacecraft is armed with an array of miniature science laboratories and instruments designed to detect the organic building blocks of life – substances containing carbon and hydrogen. But one of its most important tasks is to detect that most vital ingredient of all – water. Phoenix itself formed part of Nasa's strategy to "follow the water" in its search for the chemical evidence of microscopic life on Mars, whether it existed in the past or is still alive today.

"The main goal of the mission is to get below the surface of Mars to where we are almost certain there is water," said Dr Tom Pike of Imperial College London, a member of the British team involved with Phoenix. "Water, of course, is of critical importance because it is one of the building blocks – one of the essential habitats we need – for life."

Within the next day or so, Nasa intends to deploy the spacecraft's near-8ft-long robotic arm with a scoop that can dig into and under the surface and hopefully bring back frozen samples to the on-board instruments that can chemically analyse the material, convert the information into the digital language of computers and transmit the data back to Earth.

The three-month mission is the first on Mars to be conducted so far north, well into the "permafrost" region where underground ice deposits are believed to lie just near to the surface.

The last time man realised a soft landing on Mars was in 1976, when two Viking landers successfully landed on an equatorial region, where water is not thought to exist. Since then, all landings, including the highly successful Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Odyssey, in 2004, have used inflatable balloons to cushion the final impact of descent.

Scientists said that the significance of a successful soft landing using retrorockets cannot be overestimated. This is the most likely technology to be used in any future manned mission.

Phoenix, the brainchild of scientists at the University of Arizona, was chosen from a short-list of 24 proposals to become Nasa first's mission in its "Scout Programme". It was launched from a Delta II rocket on 4 August 2007 and, when unfolded, it measures 18ft long and 7ft tall.

Missions to Mars

By David Hewitt

July 1965: Nasa's Mariner 4 completes the first successful fly-by of Mars. In total, 634kb of data, which would fit comfortably into a modern mobile phone memory, is beamed back to Earth, showing a crater-marked, lunar landscape, now known to be largely unrepresentative of Mars in general.

December 1971: The Soviet Union successfully lands its Mars 2 and Mars 3 probes. Although equipped with a surface rover and television cameras, the mission fails because the main parachute does not open and the descent module is destroyed on impact.

August 1976: Nasa launches its most ambitious mission so far, the Viking. After six years, Viking 1 fails to detect evidence of microbes on the planet, but the detail of the colour pictures sent back makes the mission a success. Still used today, the images returned include the famous "Face on Mars", taken by some conspiracy theorists as proof of extra-terrestrial life.

July 1988: The Soviet Union's exploratory efforts are again dealt a blow as its Phobos mission to Mars and its two moons is plagued by glitches. The Phobos 2 craft does manage to take some photos while in orbit but contact with Phobos 1 is lost before it can release its surface probes.

November 1996: Following the resounding failure of its Mars Observer orbiter four years before, Nasa launches the Mars Global Surveyor. Deemed a success, the mission comprehensively maps the surface of the planet before contact is lost at the end of 2006. The new images reveal that the "Face on Mars" is nothing more than a trick of the light, created by shadows.

October 2001: Nasa's Mars Odyssey, named after the science fiction film, enters orbit. In addition to detecting large amounts of hydrogen, thought to be contained in water ice deposits, the Odyssey also serves as a relay between Earth and the space agency's Mars rovers and Phoenix lander.

2003: The European Space Agency attempts its first planetary mission, the Mars Express. While the Mars Express Orbiter has been successfully undertaking high-resolution imaging and mineralogical mapping of the planet since 2004, the landing craft Beagle 2 crashes near the Martian South Pole.

May 2008: Nasa's Mars Phoenix lander touches down on and sends back historic pictures of its northern plain. Over the coming months, it will dig for sub-surface water ice which could prove that Mars once supported life.

Suggested Topics
News
Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
i100
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits