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Spacecraft could answer question of life on Mars



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Keith McCord reporting We are back on Mars! After a 10-month, 422,000,000 mile voyage through space, NASA's Phoenix spacecraft touched down on the red plant Sunday night. The spacecraft landed in the northern latitudes of Mars, similar in location to the Earth's Greenland or northern Alaska.

Mission controllers at NASA and space enthusiasts here in Utah are thrilled! NASA calls it "7 Minutes of Terror;" that is the final moments when the Phoenix was maneuvering for landing.

At the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., there were a number of anxious faces and pacing. And here in Utah, members of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society and NASA's Utah Ambassador, Patrick Wiggins, were also on the edge of their seats.

All of this tension and anticipation was because more than half of all Mars landings have ended up in failure, and a 10-month flight is a long time to wait. Everyone's fingers were crossed during the final few seconds.

NASA audio said, "20 meters ... 15 meters ... standing by for touchdown ... touchdown signal detected!" Those words brought cheers and tears. Wiggins said, "Relief, emotion, joy. This is incredible. You know that last time we tried this, it didn't work."

For the next 90 days, Phoenix will send photos and other data back to Earth. The spacecraft is equipped with an 8-foot-long arm capable of digging trenches to analyze soil and ice samples for traces of organic compounds, the chemical building-blocks of life.

German Platero, with the Salt Lake astronomy club, said, "I will not be surprised if we find some elements or hints of life, microbial life. I would not be surprised at all."

Wiggins says, "Mars is not a nice place to land. But we got one of the biggest hurdles out of the way, we're safely sitting on the surface, and now we wait for other things to happen and see."

NASA says the spacecraft is already sending back its first pictures from Mars. They can see that the solar panels are deployed; they will keep the batteries charged.

The cost of this mission is $420-million.

E-mail: kmccord@ksl.com

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