Phoenix Mars Lander Spotted from Space
The butterfly-like object in this picture is NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander, as seen from above by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona.

This story was updated at 4:13 p.m. EDT.

PASADENA, Calif. — A spacecraft orbiting Mars has photographed the Phoenix Mars Lander on the surface of the red planet, NASA scientists announced today.

Mission controllers also said the mission seems to have hit its first snag as the radio on NASA?s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which communicates with Phoenix, has shut itself off due to an unknown problem. Despite this setback, Phoenix seems to be doing just fine.

?Phoenix is healthy, everything is fine,? said Fuk Li, manager of the Mars Exploration Laboratory at NASA?s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

The radio shutdown prevented mission scientists from sending Phoenix its instructions for the day this morning, as well as from receiving another set of images from the lander. MRO controllers are working on the problem now, and hope to have it fixed for the next scheduled link-up this evening.

If the radio fix goes well, mission scientists will start attempting to move the lander?s robotic arm tomorrow. A few days later, they will likely start practicing scooping up soil and in about a week, they may start delivering their first samples to the lander?s instruments.

Phoenix landed in the north polar regions of Mars in the Vastitas Borealis plains on Sunday evening. The $420-million mission, which launched in August, plans to dig down to the rock-hard layers of water ice thought to lie under the Martian soil near the planet?s north pole. It will test the soil and ice for signs that the water was once liquid to see if it could have created a habitable zone for microbial life at some point in the past.

The color image the MRO?s HiRISE camera took on Monday showed Phoenix, with its fan-like solar arrays visible. The image also showed two black spots that appear to be the jettisoned heat shield and a bounce mark it may have made, as well as the lander?s parachute, which appeared as a white smudge about 300 meters away from the lander.

?We?re thrilled with these images,? said HiRISE principal investigator Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona. HiRISE will likely take more images of the lander and the surrounding terrain throughout the mission.

Phoenix was able to send back more images last night, including one of its robotic arm, which showed that the biobarrier that protected it during its flight had more fully deployed since the previous day. The lander also took more images of the landing site terrain, this time to the south of Phoenix. They showed a series of low hills about 5.5 miles (9 kilometers) away, which indicate clear skies on Mars.

?That means that there?s not much dust in the atmosphere; it?s a very clear day,? said Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith, also of the University of Arizona.

Scientists have also been able to more accurately pinpoint Phoenix?s landing spot. The new estimate of the lander?s position shows that ?we really landed in the spot the scientists were looking for,? said JPL Navigation Team Chief Brain Portock.

The landing spot still looks largely devoid of rocks, which is perfect for digging, Smith said. ?All of this is prime digging area,? he said.

The MRO radio glitch has delayed Phoenix?s schedule by a day, mission scientists said, but they noted that Phoenix has a default set of instructions it follows when it doesn?t receive any new commands in the morning.

If MRO controllers are unable to fix the radio problem this evening, commands will be sent to Phoenix tomorrow morning via the Mars Odyssey orbiter, mission controllers said.

NASA's next Phoenix mission briefing will be broadcast live on NASA TV at 2:00 p.m. EDT (1900 GMT) on Wednesday, May 28. Click here for SPACE.com's Phoenix mission coverage and a link to NASA TV.