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A Phoenix on Mars

Searching for habitability on the Red Planet

A new emissary from Earth is set to parachute onto Mars May 25, making it the first craft to land on the Red Planet’s north polar region.

NASA’s $386-million Phoenix Mars Lander features a robotic arm — similar to a backhoe — that will dig trenches up to half a meter deep in the frigid soil, scraping and scooping up samples of ice that previous satellite studies indicate lie just a few centimeters beneath the surface. Phoenix will deliver those samples to onboard detectors — eight miniature ovens, four laboratory wet cells and a mass spectrometer — to determine if the region contains water, complex organic compounds and sources of energy that might support life.

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