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US probe to make perilous landing on Martian arctic

world Updated: May 23, 2008 10:59 IST

AFP
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After a nine-month journey through space, the US probe Phoenix will land on the arctic surface of Mars on Sunday to dig for ice in a new quest for signs of life on the Red Planet.

NASA's 420-million-dollar probe will become the first spacecraft to land on the Martian arctic surface and will stay there for a three-month mission.

After traveling 679 million kilometers through the cosmos, Phoenix will enter the top of the Martian atmosphere at around 0459 IST, zipping at 21,000 kilometers per hour to begin a perilous descent that will end with a soft landing seven minutes later.

But the US space agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, which controls the mission, will have to wait an agonizing 15 minutes for the radio signal confirming the safe landing to reach Earth.

"This is not a trip to grandma's house. Putting a spacecraft safely on Mars is hard and risky," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

"We do believe that it's a risk worth taking," said Fuk Li, manager of NASA's Mars Exploration program, "because I think that the science the mission will return with will be outstanding and we will open up a new chapter on how we understand Mars to be."

Since Mars exploration began in the 1970s, more than half, or 55 per cent, of probes sent to the Red Planet have failed to reach their destination.

Like previous Mars landers, Phoenix is equipped with a thermal shield to slow its entry into the atmosphere and will deploy a parachute to slow its speed.