Finding a place to park in the city -- or, a crowded airport ramp -- is an issue nearly all of us have experienced at one time or another. It's also a problem for scientists at NASA who are rushing to find an alternative landing site for an upcoming Mars probe.
The Associated Press reports images taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of the planned landing site for the space agency's Phoenix Mars lander showed an unwelcome surprise: large, bus-sized boulders all over the place. Not the most hospitable environment for a $400 million space probe.
Peter Smith of the University of Arizona is NASA's principal investigator on the Phoenix project. He says scientists are studying three possible alternative landing sites, all of which are clustered around Mars' north pole -- an area thought to hold a significant amount of ice just under the soil. Phoenix is equipped with a long drilling arm to collect samples of that soil.
"This is the first mission to actually reach down and get a handful of icy soil and analyze it," Smith said, adding a site dubbed 'Green Valley' for its shallow dip in the Martian surface appears most promising.
Scientists will need to come to a decision soon. Phoenix -- the first probe in NASA's unmanned Mars Scout program -- is set to launch in August. A ruling on a landing site needs to be made by March. Due to the unforeseen delay in finding a suitable landing site, the $386 million project has gone over budget by about $31 million.
Lockheed Martin built the probe, which was originally set to fly as part of the Mars Global Surveyor program in 2001. However, the program was halted when the Mars Polar Lander mysteriously disappeared in 1999.
A NASA investigation later determined that loss was due to a premature shutoff of the Polar Lander's engine... and Phoenix received a new chance to fly.