Nasa set to reveal the secrets of Mars

Mars has not given up its secrets easily. Named after the Roman god of war, it has punished previous attempts to investigate its mysteries, and millions of pounds of hi-tech equipment has been lost. So next Sunday scientists will be holding their breath as they send their £200m probe final instructions before it attempts a complicated landing at the planet's north pole.

It has taken more than 30 years and numerous missions to our closest neighbour to discover that frozen water lies just underneath a quarter of the Martian surface, which could indicate if the planet has ever supported life.

The latest, Phoenix Mars Lander, as it is called, will touch down next Sunday following a 171 million-mile journey with a three-month mission to dig into that tundra and discover if the ice ever melts, and if it contains any organic matter such as carbon.

The catch is that it is speeding towards the mysterious red planet at 6,000 mph, which will increase to 13,000mph as it is captured by Martian gravity. It will then have just minutes to reduce this speed to zero.

Other attempts to send life-hunting probes have failed catastrophically. The last Nasa probe to the polar regions, in 1999, out of which this mission was born, crash landed and was never heard from. A similar fate is believed to have befallen Beagle 2, which famously failed to phone home on Boxing Day 2003.

Some missions, however, have been successful. Two rovers, which landed on Mars in 2004 and were designed to last three months, still send back stunning pictures of the desolate landscape along with reams of information. They, however, were dropped on the planet cushioned in huge airbags. Phoenix will attempt to touch down on Mars next week using thrusters, a method last used successfully in 1976 but which failed so disastrously nine years ago.

"We think we've ironed all the bugs out," said Professor Peter Smith, in charge of the mission, yesterday.

"There's a great deal to be learned. This is the most incredible mission ever flown. We are taking the next step on Mars. Does the frozen water melt? Is it an inhabitable zone? Are there organic materials – all the ingredients that make it an inhabitable place for life.

"We are zeroing in on whether there was life on Mars. But a lot can go wrong. I'm starting to turn a little gooey."

It's no wonder. Phoenix will initially be slowed by the friction of Mars's atmosphere to 900mph, which will raise the temperature on its heatshield to around 2,600F (1,427C). It will then deploy a parachute, slowing the probe to around 125 mph, which will be jettisoned. The probe will then freefall for a split second, before, hopefully, its thrusters fire and its legs unfold.

In the meantime it is heading towards the planet like a dart, but wide of its target, Professor Smith said.

"We had to make some adjustments to its course yesterday," he said. "And there'll be another next week. After that you have to weigh the risk of making any adjustments. You can do too much. Any time you fire the jet you're taking a risk. So it gets dicey."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Executive - Graduate / Entry Level

£22000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital advertising infras...

Recruitment Genius: European Sales Director - Aerospace Cable & Wire

£100000 - £125000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a top tier supplier to the...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Project Manager

£17100 - £22900 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the North West's leading...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an intermediate help de...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral