First pictures sent after Mars probe lands safely

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The Independent Online

Space scientists are celebrating after successfully landing a probe on the surface of Mars.

Nasa's control-room team had been fretting long into last night over the 50-50 odds of a successful landing by the Phoenix Mars Lander. Staff at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, could only wait and watch after taking a decision not to alter its final trajectory hours before touchdown at 00.51GMT.

Barry Goldstein, the Nasa project manager, admitted the complicated landing process was a "jittery time". As the craft neared the end of its 10-month journey and the planet's gravity started to pull it in the project's chief at the University of Arizona, Peter Smith, said: "Mars is literally pulling on our spacecraft, and at the same time it is pulling on our emotions.

"We are excited at how close we are right now to beginning our study of a site where Martian water ice will be within our reach. Our science mission begins as the spacecraft settles into its new home on Mars."

After its 170 million-mile journey through space, the Phoenix entered the Red Planet's atmosphere at 12,700mph. But within seven minutes, its retro-rockets and parachute ensured that it landed on its three feet at only 5mph.

Only about half of the 36 Mars expeditions over the years have been successful. The last two Mars Exploration Rovers, in 2002, were cushioned on impact by a cluster of airbags. Phoenix's mission is to find out if the northern polar region of the planet could ever have supported life.

Dr Tom Pike, the scientist at Imperial College London who previously worked at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, led the British contribution to the mission.

He said: "We're not looking for the signatures of life at this stage, we're looking to see if the paper is there to write the signature on. What Phoenix could show is the potential for life, and that's a very interesting result on its own."