Mars probe sends back new pictures of landing site

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Phoenix lander has sent back new pictures from the arctic circle of Mars, showing for the first time the spot where it will dig through the Red Planet’s dusty surface looking for water and assess conditions for life.

The remarkable images, displayed on Tuesday by mission managers, offered a glimpse of the Martian valley where Phoenix will scoop up samples of frozen soil for analysis by its instruments -- as well as views of the lander and its discarded parachute standing out starkly from the dark surface of the planet where they came to rest.

“This is a place we’re going to get to know very well over the next three months,” the mission’s chief scientist, Peter Smith, said in describing the 30-mile wide valley and small hills on the horizon.

Mission managers said Phoenix, which touched gently down on Mars on Sunday after a 10-month, 420 million-mile (676 million-km) journey from Earth, had come through its landing in good shape, though they were still grappling with a pair of technical glitches.

The more serious of those involved Phoenix’s inability to communicate with NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which, along with the Odyssey spacecraft, must relay commands and data back to Earth, since the lander cannot communicate directly with its home planet.

Fuk Li, manager of the Mars exploration program for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, said the problem was a UHF radio on the orbiter, which he said appeared to have shut down after an unknown “transient event” in space.

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Li said the Phoenix team was working to re-establish communications and did not expect the mission to be compromised because the lander was still in contact with Odyssey.

“We would just have to ask Odyssey to work harder,” Li said.

Phoenix also had trouble fully retracing a covering for its robotic arm, although managers said it appeared the arm would be able to fully function.

Phoenix touched down at 4:53 p.m. PDT on Sunday, becoming the first spacecraft to reach a polar region of Mars. Problems during descent doomed NASA’s first polar lander in 1999.

Over the next three months, scientists want to bore into the ground and study water and soil samples to determine if conditions were suitable to support life. In addition to determining if the water was ever liquid, scientists want to find out if it holds any organic matter.

The Viking landers in the 1970s and early 1980s conducted similar tests on surface soils. Scientists later determined solar radiation flowing through the planet’s thin atmosphere creates a sterile environment as it bombards the ground.

Subsurface conditions, however, might provide habitats for microbes and bacterial life to flourish on Mars, as they do in extreme environments on Earth.

For the past decade, NASA has been searching for signs of past water on Mars with a fleet of orbiters and a pair of rovers on the ground.

The detection of subsurface frozen water in 2002 by Mars Odyssey prompted scientists to propose the Phoenix mission. (Editing by Doina Chiacu)