The previous ``soft landing'' on a planet was three decades ago, with NASA's Viking probes. Recent crafts sent to Mars, such as NASA's wheeled rovers, weighed less and relied on air bags to cushion the final impact.
Now on the surface, the Phoenix must work quickly. Martian winter begins in three months. The sun will drop below the horizon, and a thick ice of water and carbon dioxide will coat the lander's solar panels, ending its life.
The golf cart-size probe will use an 8-foot robotic arm, as well as a drill, to penetrate several feet of soil at the landing spot, near Mars's northern polar ice cap.
The flexible arm will scoop dirt and ice into ovens about the size of a matchbox. They will heat samples to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit (980 degrees Celsius).
The probe will then test the burned soil for organic chemicals and minerals crucial to life. Much of the information can be analyzed on the spot and radioed back to Earth.
NASA's Viking probes also examined Martian soil in the 1970s, when the primary concern was locating safe landing spots. Dirt samples at those sites lacked much water.
From Bloomberg News here.
It will be interesting to compare the samples from Viking to Phoenix's. Will they find microbes? Will they find the water? It will be an interesting three months.
To find the latest pictures here in the NASA/Phoenix site.