Science

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An artist's rendering released by NASA shows the Phoenix Mars Lander landing on Mars.

Mars Lander May Find First Signs of Life on the Red Planet

May 15, 2008 07:00 AM
by Cara McDonough
The Mars Phoenix Lander will arrive at its destination May 25 in search of water, and possibly evidence of life.

30-Second Summary

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“If we’re successful, this mission will be remembered for being the first to do direct analysis of ice or water on the surface of Mars,” says NASA’s Mike Gross.

The lander will dig through the topsoil of the Red Planet, looking for clues about whether that environment was or is suitable for microorganisms to grow and reproduce, Gross explained.

The Viking missions in the 1970s showed that no life currently exists on Mars, but scientists believe that life could have existed in Mars’s distant past, when water may have existed on the planet’s surface.

The Phoenix mission offers new hope following two major setbacks for Martian landers, Wired reports. NASA’s Mars Polar Lander mission disappeared in January 1999 after arriving on the planet, and the European Space Agency’s Beagle 2 went missing on Christmas Day in 2003.

Part of the problem with missions to the planet is that Mars’s harsh atmosphere makes it an incredibly dangerous place to visit, Gross says, and landing can be the trickiest part.

At this point, future manned visits to Mars seem nearly impossible due to high radiation levels on the planet, so scientists are working to develop protective shielding materials on spacecrafts that would allow humans to make the journey someday.

Politics plays a role in future missions, as well. In 2004 President George Bush issued a presidential mandate that included the goal of returning to the moon by 2020, launching the next steps of space exploration: human missions to Mars and beyond.

Headline Link: Looking for evidence of life on Mars

Background: The Viking missions and rovers Opportunity and Spirit

Related Topics: Human travel to Mars could be next

The space race

Reference: The Phoenix Mars Lander

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