Phoenix Mars Lander

  • Posted 07.30.08
  • NOVA scienceNOW

With behind-the-scenes access, NOVA scienceNOW covers the Mars lander Phoenix's thrilling descent to the martian surface and its critical early days of operations. Phoenix will dig into the permafrost to obtain samples of martian dirt and ice for analysis in onboard labs, seeking any evidence that the Red Planet might once have sustained microbial life—or perhaps still does.

Running Time: 11:33



PBS Airdate: July 30, 2008

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Hi, I'm Neil deGrasse Tyson, your host of NOVA ScienceNOW.

A century ago, astronomer Percival Lowell gazed up at Mars and imagined a network of canals built by civilized Martians. Of course, he was mistaken. That kind of Martian life was just Lowell's fantasy, but the search for real life on Mars is still going strong, even though now we'd be happy to find microbes or even just organic molecules.

Just recently, a new probe landed on Mars, and this one had the best chance yet of discovering whether Mars could have ever supported life.

PETER SMITH: This is the thrill of space exploration for me. Who knows where it can lead? I mean it's that unknown, it's that mysteries may be solved, new mysteries created. It's what keeps us going. This is why we do it.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Peter Smith has spent 15 years trying to get to one place. It just so happens to be a couple of hundred million miles away.

PETER SMITH: Sending a mission to Mars is somewhat like hitting a golf ball across the solar system. We'll see if we've got our hole in one.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Smith is in charge of Phoenix, the NASA spacecraft that's been making headlines this summer with its amazing findings on the planet Mars.

I got to go behind the scenes to see firsthand why everyone's getting so excited. It turns out there's a profound reason.

PETER SMITH: How many times have you looked up in the sky and wondered, are we alone in the universe?

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: But hold on. Are we talking Martians? If Hollywood's got it right, we should be finding monsters on Mars.

MOVIE CLIP: It's alive!

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Or maybe it's alien invaders.

PIERCE BROSNAN Mars Attacks, FILM CLIP: Our Martian friend is a carbon-based life form.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Astrobiologists haven't given up on those carbon-based life forms, but they're looking for something considerably smaller: microbes, tiny single-celled organisms.

Phoenix's destination? The northern polar region of Mars. For a long time we've known it has an ice cap made primarily of frozen carbon dioxide, dry ice. But in 2002, we looked deeper.

An orbiter called Mars Odyssey detected elements beneath the surface. The one marked blue was big news. It's hydrogen. That's right, the H in H2O.

Water is one of the key ingredients for life, but can Phoenix find it on the planet surface?

PETER SMITH: Phoenix is going down to investigate. This is the site we've chosen.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: The Mars equivalent of northern Alaska, that's where Phoenix is landing. Less than 10 months after liftoff.

MISSION CONTROL 1: Four, three, two, one, mark.

MISSION CONTROL 2: We have now entered the atmosphere and are starting to slow down.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: For engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, this is IT...

MISSION CONTROL 3: 27 meters, 20 meters, 16 meters standing by for touchdown. Touchdown signal detected. Sequence initiated.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: A flawless soft landing. Welcome to Planet Mars... Time to get to work.

PETER SMITH: This is our downlink room. The data is piped to this facility right here, and it comes up on the screen, that's where we see...

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: So this is the first time it's ever seen by anybody...


NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: on the screen? That's cool.

PETER SMITH: That's correct, that's correct.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: So if anything was crawling around, you all would see it, here and now.

It's up to the team members here at the University of Arizona to tell Phoenix what to do.

NASA EMPLOYEE: Who's ready?

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: I'm ready. Let's do it.


NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Rick McCloskey is one of them.

Looky here: it's an exact replica of Phoenix, but is it more than a museum piece?

RICK MCCLOSKE (Phoenix mission): Oh, it's much more...

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: What do you do with it?

RICK MCCLOSKY: ...much more than a museum piece. It allows us to test any sequence, any commands that we send to Phoenix on Mars.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: The experiments they've got in store for the real lander can be tested here first.

Phoenix is equipped with a stereoscopic imager, a weather station, and to cap it all off, a robotic shovel.

On Mars, the lander is sitting in a desert of dirt, but beneath the dirt there should be a vast ice field. Is it water? Did it ever melt so it could support life?

PAT WOIDA (University of Arizona): Phoenix's goal: to take a look and see if the water's really there and to assess habitability. That is, in the past, was the planet able to support life and did it?

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: To find out, Phoenix gets digging.

In one of its first trenches, it reveals light nuggets beneath the dirt, exposing them to the heat of the sun. After four days, lo and behold, the chunks disappear.

They've vaporized into the thin, dry Martian atmosphere. The only explanation...

PETER SMITH: This material, we think, is ice.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Not just any ice, water ice.

For the first time, we've touched water on another planet! This is an enormous step in the search for extraterrestrial life.

But microbes need more than water to survive. Phoenix will be combing the soil for nutrients—carbon, nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorous—the chemical cocktail that is crucial to life as we know it.

Onboard are two labs, one that wets samples and another that cooks them, to distinguish different chemicals—pretty cool contraption. Want one? You just have to know where to shop. You can find something pretty similar and a lot cheaper at your local gardening store.

SAM KOUNAVES (Tufts University): I don't think it's here.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: A sheet metal warthog.



SAM KOUNAVES: Zinnias? Nope, not zinnias.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: When it comes to the red planet, Sam Kounaves has a green thumb.

So you work on Mars and you dragged me to a gardening center. So...?

SAM KOUNAVES: Well yeah. What we're looking for is exactly what we're going to do with Phoenix on Mars, exactly what gardeners do.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Gardeners? Gardeners—they water their plants, they prune the flowers.


NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: So, there's no plants or flowers on Mars.

SAM KOUNAVES: If you were going to your lawn care store, you might want to know how good your soil was, how well it would support the grass. Exactly the same thing we're looking for in the Martian soil.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Soil test strips.

SAM KOUNAVES: Soil testing, that's it. I think we found it. By looking at the soil you can tell its ability to support life.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: According to Kounaves, the deserts outside of Tucson have a lot to tell us about Mars.

But, isn't there a little problem? It's 110 degrees outside right now. And, last I checked, on Mars, it was a hundred degrees below zero. So what do you mean, this is like Mars?

SAM KOUNAVES: It's like in the fact that it's a desert. And you can have cold deserts and hot deserts.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Mars is the cold kind of desert.

Phoenix's postcards home are visions of the planet's north, never before glimpsed. It looks bleak. How could microbes survive in a place this harsh?

So this is a riverbed?

To find out, Kounaves has brought me to a naturally formed gully. Is this a realm that could possibly sustain any life? Its chemistry will tell.

Is it like the pregnancy test where there's a plus sign and a minus sign?

SAM KOUNAVES: Very similar, very similar. And, in some ways, it's an analog to what we're doing on Mars. On Mars, we're using sensors that are electronic to tell us what's there. This uses color to tell us what's in there.

Dip it in there for 10 seconds. Now we're going to look here...and, see? There's some phosphorous here. This soil is very low in nitrogen and high in potassium.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: The tests reveal it's got phosphorous and potassium, nutrients that tiny microbes love. Plus there's its pH, how acidic the soil is.

Okay, so this tells you that if you got these readings on Mars, that's within the range of microbes that exist here on Earth.

Even in the harshest environments in the world, from Death Valley to Antarctica, you'd get the same incredible results: the nutrients for life.

SAM KOUNAVES: Any desert we go to, we look hard enough, and we, all of a sudden, have realized there's life there. You look close enough and you find organisms that thrive in this environment.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Will Phoenix find the same kinds of nutrients on Mars? It's time to put Martian soil to the test.

TUFTS TEAM MEMBER: What can you tell now?

JASON KAPIT (Tufts University): That experiment is progressing as expected, but we don't have the scientific results of it yet.

TUFTS TEAM MEMBER: This is going to dribble on and on and on and on.

JASON KAPIT: For the next four hours.


NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Hearing from Mars takes time. Every message must be relayed via satellites orbiting the planet. They cross paths with Phoenix only a few times a day, so the news just trickles in.

JASON KAPIT: Initial indications say we've generated as much data as we expected to, which means experiments are going well.

SUZANNE YOUNG: Just waiting, that part was agony. Every second was an hour. It was definitely the longest hour of my life.

JASON KAPIT: I'll wait 'til it's all down to look at it.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: The stakes are high...

SAM KOUNAVES: There are a lot of things that can go wrong between Earth and a measurement on Mars, lots of things. A lot of us worked a decade or more...

SUZANNE YOUNG: A decade of fruition, yeah.

TUFTS TEAM MEMBER: Ten years of work.

SUZANNE YOUNG: finally touch mars.



JASON KAPIT: All right, here we go. It's coming. It's coming.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: The first newsflash is that pH reading. If it's extreme, that would be toxic to life.

TUFTS TEAM MEMBER: I want a number from 0 to 12.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: The surprise is...

TUFTS TEAM MEMBER: It's basic. It's basic.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON:'s mild, a reading between eight and nine. And the news just gets better...

TUFTS TEAM MEMBER: Beautiful! Oh, that is gorgeous!

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: ...magnesium and chloride; sodium and potassium at levels similar to what we got in the desert. The Phoenix mission has established that this Martian soil isn't just nutritious enough for microbes, it could actually sustain plant life.

PETER SMITH: I think we're building a case for a habitable zone. What we're seeing is there's a rich mixture of nutrients.

JASON KAPIT: That we could actually come to good scientific conclusions from this data and release them to the public and the world, it's almost like a dream come true.


Phoenix Mars Lander

Edited by
Tony Breuer
Written, Produced and Directed by
Jonathan Grupper

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is director of the Hayden Planetarium in the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History.
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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0638931. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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All rights reserved

Image credit: (Phoenix Mars lander) Courtesy NASA/JPL-Calech/University of Arizona


Neil deGrasse Tyson
Astrophysicist, American Museum of Natural History
Jason Kapit
Tufts University
Samuel Kounaves
Tufts University
Peter Smith
University of Arizona
Pat Woida
University of Arizona
Suzanne Young
Tufts University

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