400 million miles from home, the safe arrival of a small space probe on Mars provoked joyous scenes at Mission Control. NASA’s Phoenix landed bang on target after a high-risk, high-speed dive through the Martian skies, hoping to find life on the Red Planet. The first pictures arrived back on Earth, and project manager Barry Goldstein said the trip had started perfectly.
“In my dreams it could not have gone as perfectly as it went tonight,” he said. “It went right down the middle, absolutely perfect. We are on the surface, we had a minute’s worth of data after touchdown. We can confirm we are at one-quarter degree tilt, we are almost dead on on our azimuth, we are almost pointing perfectly east-west as we expected.”
NASA’s earlier Mars Rovers used airbags to cushion the shock of landing. But Phoenix relied on retro-rockets to slow its 20,000 kilometres per hour entry speed. Mars has vast reservoirs of frozen water at its poles, which could once have supported life. Phoenix hopes to prove that once and for all.