The Phoenix Mars Lander was the first mission to explore the Arctic region of Mars at ground level. Phoenix was launched from the Kennedy Space Centre aboard a Delta II rocket at 5:26 a.m. EDT on August 4, 2007. It landed near Mars's northern polar cap on May 25, 2008 in an area known as Vastitas Borealis, where it continued to operate successfully for more than five months (far beyond its planned 90-day lifespan).
The Phoenix Mission marked the first time that Canada, as a nation, landed on the surface of Mars. Canada's meteorological station recorded the daily weather at the landing site. It measured Mars' temperature and pressure, and probed clouds, fog and dust in Mars' lower atmosphere. Most significantly, the weather station confirmed that it snows on Mars by detecting snowflakes falling from clouds about 4 kilometres above the spacecraft's landing
The Canadian Space Agency Celebrates the 5th Anniversary of Phoenix's Landing
On May 25, 2008, the Phoenix Mars Lander made a dramatic landing on Mars, with millions of people worldwide sharing the jubilation of the international team gathered at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Within hours of landing, the spacecraft beamed back images of the rocky polar region of Mars. This panorama stitches together hundreds of images of Phoenix itself and its barren surroundings, looking much like the northern regions of our own planet. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University)
Phoenix made several breakthrough discoveries about Mars, our planetary neighbor. It was the first spacecraft to actually touch ice on Mars, confirming that the Red Planet still has water in the form of ice beneath its desert-like surface.
This image of the trenches dug by Phoenix's robotic arm reveals ice as white patches just below just a few centimeters of soil. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University)
Phoenix also set out to study whether Mars ever had the conditions to support life. Its on-board chemistry labs shown in this image determined that the nearby is unlike any found by earlier Mars missions: mildly alkaline, with small concentrations of salts that could be nutrients for life.
Phoenix detected quantities of calcium carbonate in the soil. Commonly found in rocks on Earth like limestone and chalk (also a major ingredient of seashells, eggshells and found in broccoli and kale), calcium carbonate lead scientists to believe that the environment where Phoenix landed could have once been wet or damp. On Earth, where there is water, there is life. Following the water on Mars is a first step in eventually finding out if Mars was ever—or could still be—an abode for life. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University)
Phoenix also found perchlorate salts in the soil—a surprising new puzzle for Mars scientists. Percholorate can lower the freezing point of water. Could that be the reason why satellite photos show areas where water flowed recently on Mars in spite of frigid temperatures? If percholorate can destroy organic molecules when they are heated together, is that the reason why early Mars missions like Viking didn't find any evidence of the building blocks of life on Mars? Do scientists need to change the way they search for signs of life on Mars? Could percholorate—found in rocket fuel and fireworks—be used by future missions to Mars to make oxygen and fuel? As is often the case with science, each discovery brings a myriad of new questions to answer...
Image: A vertical projection of images taken by Phoenix's on-board cameras, stitched together as if looking downwards towards the lander from above. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University)
The Phoenix mission marked the first time that Canada was part of a mission to land on Mars. On May 26, 2008, the Phoenix Mars Lander beamed back the first image of the word "Canada" displayed prominently on the side of the lidar instrument, part of the Canadian-built meteorology station that probed Mars's weather and climate throughout the mission, studying clouds, fog and dust in the lower atmosphere. The lidar proudly bears the same Canada wordmark on its thermal blankets as the iconic Canadarm on the Space Shuttle, Canadarm2 and Dextre, the Canadian robots aboard the International Space Station (ISS). (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University)
On the 99th day of the mission, the Canadian lidar made an unprecedented discovery: it detected snowflakes falling from the clouds about 4 kilometres above the spacecraft's landing site. The colour on this graph shows Martian clouds, with snowfall where the streaks curve towards the right of the graphic, showing faster winds at higher altitudes. "Nothing like this view has ever been seen on Mars," said Jim Whiteway, of York University, lead scientist for the Canadian Space Agency's Meteorological Station. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Canadian Space Agency)
What could be more Canadian that studying the weather of Mars? Throughout the mission, the Canadian Space Agency's Meteorological Station recorded the temperature and barometric pressure, producing a daily Mars weather report for Earthlings to compare with their home planet. Wind speeds were supplied by Danish collaborators from the University of Aarhus. This weather report is from Martian Day (Sol) 151, the final data sent by the Phoenix lander. Designed to last for 90 days, Phoenix outperformed all expectations by working for five months. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) officially ended the mission on May 25, 2010, after it was determined that the spacecraft likely did not survive the harsh conditions of Martian winter. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Canadian Space Agency. Wind: University of Aarhus)