Find the NASA channel or Science Channel in your local listings for live updates on the landing of the Phoenix Lander, on its way to touchdown on Mars right now!
Update #1: Confirmation was received at approximately 7:53pm Eastern (4:53pm Pacific) that the Phoenix touched down, apparently successfully, about 15 minutes prior. The delay in reporting is due to the length of time it takes for a signal traveling at the speed of light to reach Earth from Mars. Congratulations ASU, NASA, JPL, and everyone else involved. You folks make me truly proud! Well done.
Update #2: The lander’s parachute deployed approximately 8 seconds later than expected, resulting in the lander coming to rest 18-22km down range from where expected, but still close to the nominal landing site. In a press conference at 9:00pm PDT, this feat was compared with a golf game in which a person hits a golf ball from Washington D.C. and making a hole-in-one in Australia, when both the golfer and the hole are moving at different speeds. Quite an accomplishment.
While much of the media wanted quick assumptions and early predictions, it will actually take a few days before Phoenix will be sending back much “interesting” information. For the next few days, the investigation team will be monitoring the functions of the lander. They will be especially monitoring how the batteries perform, how quickly and completely the solar arrays recharge the batteries, and how much of the energy the heaters use at night to keep everything from freezing up. Once they figure out the energy requirements to keep everything running, they will be able to determine how much energy is available for running their experiments. So far, everything is looking quite good, and there might even be a slight surplus of energy. This could result in slightly more experiments being able to be completed than originally planned. After the original 90 Sols (Martian days), if the lander is still performing well, the mission may be extended an additional 60 Sols. That decision, however, mostly depends on weather and other conditions outside the control of the scientists.
So what can we expect over the next several days? More pictures for one. By tomorrow, we should receive more photos coming back, probably looking in the opposite direction from the photos above. They will probably attempt to save bandwidth and skip taking color photos, instead focusing on expanding the total viewing area to around 120°. Color photos are much larger, and there is only a limited transmission window each day in which they can send and receive information. The robotic arm and other systems are also being deployed, and once the scientists have assessed the status and located interesting surface features, they will being using the tools in the lander to start taking readings. That should lead to many interesting discoveries, though it may take months or even years before all the data can be fully processed and understood.
Will the Phoenix scientists find proof of past or current life on Mars? It is impossible to guess. The thing that is important to remember is that “life on Mars” does not mean “little green men” or anything even as advanced as a snail (though such evidence would be awesome). Evidence of life could simply mean that certain amino acids or other organic compounds could be found trapped in the ice. Anything ranging from the simple building blocks of life to full-blown fossils would all be fascinating and increase our knowledge of our Solar system and the Universe. It would also make a strong case for those of us who believe that life in some form probably is fairly common in the Universe—even if sentient (intelligent and self-aware) life is not. I can’t wait to see what else comes out of this.