Mars Lander Sitting Pretty and Ready to Dig

Stunning photos sent back from Mars show the Phoenix lander sitting pretty on the icy northern plain and the spacecraft with its solar arrays deployed.

The spacecraft now morphs into a science lab, deploying all its instruments, including a camera and a mini backhoe. It will dig in the dirt at the landing site to find out whether the cold, forbidding surface of Mars could once have been warm enough for microbial life to exist on the planet.

It has been 32 years since NASA last landed a powered spacecraft on Mars. The Phoenix lander broke the jinx when it made a textbook landing late Sunday night on Mars' polar horizon. The cheers that broke out in the control room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab were contagious.

Could it have gone any better? "Not in my dreams," said project manager Barry Goldstein.

If something had gone wrong, there wasn't much flight controllers, 171 million miles away, could have done about it.

Phoenix survived a harrowing 12,700 mph descent to the icy north pole of the planet. The landing zone: a small rocky area with interesting polygonal shapes in the terrain that has long tempted scientists.

The goal: to find out whether conditions ever existed on Mars that could have supported life.

Planetary scientist Chris McKay said Phoenix finding signs of life it would be significant. "If we can show that right here in our solar system, life started twice, independently, then that would tell us, I think conclusively, that life is common in the universe."

The Phoenix has landed in an area of Mars where water is believed to exist in the form of ice just below the surface. This ice is probably spread fairly uniformly throughout the northern plains so the lander should be able to uncover ice wherever it lands on what is believed to be the remnant of an ancient northern sea.

It will take days before any real data comes back from the Phoenix about what it has found in its area of exploration.

Mars has attracted more space missions than the rest of the solar system's planets, but nearly two-thirds of all Mars missions have failed in some way. Statistics tell the story. Since 1960, the U.S., Russia, England and Japan have launched a combined 36 missions to the red planet.

What draws so many to Mars? Neal Lane, a science adviser to the Clinton administration and now a senior fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute, said Mars holds secrets scientists would like to unlock.

"Was there water on Mars? Where there is water, there is the possibility of life forms. Is life only on Earth, or does it exist someplace else in our solar system and beyond?"