Phoenix Spacecraft Beams Home First Images of Martian Arctic
This image, one of the first captured by NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander, shows the vast plains of the northern polar region of Mars just after landing on May 25, 2008. The flat landscape is strewn with tiny pebbles and shows polygonal cracking, a pattern seen widely in Martian high latitudes and also observed in permafrost terrains on Earth.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

PASADENA, Calif. - NASA?s Phoenix Mars Lander has returned its first images from the surface of Mars, showing that the probe?s vital solar arrays have successfully deployed and giving scientists their first up-close glimpse of the Martian arctic surface.

Phoenix landed in a northern polar region of Mars called Vastitas Borealis late Sunday, with mission controllers here at NASA?s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) receiving their first signals from the spacecraft at about 7:53 p.m. EDT (2353 GMT).

The first image Phoenix was instructed to take was of its solar arrays so that engineers could make sure the craft was getting power. The batteries Phoenix flew in on have only enough power to last about 30 hours, which would have significantly hampered the lander?s abilities to perform its planned three-month mission.

?Phoenix has spread her wings. Is that a pretty sight or what,? exclaimed one engineer when looking at the solar array images in a mission support room at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, which built the spacecraft in Denver, Colo. ?We can toss away the contingency plans now,? cried out another.

Applause broke out at Lockheed when the first image of the deployed solar arrays - and the fact they were latched in position - were relayed home from Mars.

"I can hardly contain my enthusiasm,? said Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona in a statement from the spacecraft?s control room at JPL. ?The first landed images of the Martian polar terrain will set the stage for our mission."

The images were all in black-and-white, and mostly geared at checking on the health of the spacecraft, but included the first-ever images of the terrain above Mars? arctic circle taken from the surface. They showed a surrounding landscape that looked flat as a pancake.

?This confirms what we saw from orbit,? said Dan McCleese, chief scientist at JPL. ?Looks like a good place to start digging.?

Scientists weren?t sure they would get any images of the surface so soon after landing, but were overjoyed at the message they held.

?These images are telling us that we?ve got a healthy configuration for the spacecraft,? McCleese said.

In addition to the solar arrays, Phoenix?s stereo camera also imaged the craft?s footpad flat on the dusty Martian surface.

Launched last August, Phoenix?s $420 million mission is aimed at probing beneath the Martian arctic surface for water ice to determine whether the region may have once been habitable for primitive life. The spacecraft carries a robotic arm, small ovens and beakers, as well as a Canadian-built weather station to study the northern polar plains of its landing site.

There have been some indications that NASA?s overflying Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) may possibly have snagged imagery of Phoenix drifting under its parachute as the probe headed down toward its arctic touchdown. If MRO was successful in using its sharp-shooting camera, imagery will be released on Monday.

MRO, NASA?s Mars Odyssey orbiter and the European Space Agency?s Mars Express spacecraft watched over Phoenix?s seven-minute plunge through the Martian atmosphere and relayed back the probe?s first signals from its landing site.

?It was right down the middle,? said Tim Gasparrini, deputy program manager for the Phoenix entry, descent and landing at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. ?It?s funny. You spend so much time trying to design for stuff that?s not nominal?and then it was as good as it could get,? he told SPACE.com.

SPACE.com Special Correspondent Leonard David contributed to this report from Denver, Colo.