New Images From Phoenix Lander May Show Martian Ice
This image, released on May 31, 2008, shows the ground underneath NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander, adding to evidence that descent thrusters dispersed overlying soil and exposed a harder substrate that may be ice.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA.

NASA?s Phoenix Mars Lander may have already caught its first glimpse of Martian ice less than a week after arriving at its new red planet home.

New images released Saturday reveal what could be a patch of exposed ice beneath the Phoenix lander, mission managers said in an announcement today. Phoenix beamed the images back to Earth late Friday from its Vastitas Borealis landing site in the northern polar region of Mars after using a robotic arm-mounted camera to peer beneath its undercarriage.

The new views revealed patches of smooth, level surfaces beneath Phoenix?s thrusters, boosting the confidence of researchers who had hoped the spacecraft?s pulse rocket engines could kick up the Martian topsoil to expose a buried layer of water ice.

"This suggests we have an ice table under a thin layer of loose soil," said Horst Uwe Keller, the lead scientist for Phoenix?s robotic arm camera at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany.

Phoenix, a stationary lander, set down in the Martian arctic on May 25 to begin a planned three-month mission to probe its surroundings for buried water ice using a scoop-mounted robotic arm, as well as onboard ovens and wet chemistry lab. The probe?s $422 million mission is aimed at determining whether the icy Martian north could have once been habitable for primitive life.

"We were expecting to find ice within two to six inches of the surface," said Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona in a statement. "The thrusters have excavated two to six inches and, sure enough, we see something that looks like ice. It's not impossible that it's something else, but our leading interpretation is ice."

Phoenix pulsed its rocket engines to make a three-point landing on a broad, flat valley in a region similar in latitude northwestern Canada on Earth. The area is in a region where spacecraft orbiting Mars have spotted indications of subsurface water ice in the past, making it a prime digging site for Phoenix?s robotic arm.

NASA?s Phoenix spacecraft is one of three now currently operating on the surface of Mars. The lander joined two twin robots, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which landed in 2004 and continue to explore different areas of the planet?s equatorial regions.