Mars is a cold desert planet with no liquid water on its surface. But in the Martian arctic, water ice lurks just below ground level. Discoveries made by the Mars Odyssey Orbiter in 2002 show large amounts of subsurface water ice in the northern arctic plain. The Phoenix lander targets this circumpolar region using a robotic arm to dig through the protective top soil layer to the water ice below and ultimately, to bring both soil and water ice to the lander platform for sophisticated scientific analysis.
Image right: This map centered on the north pole of Mars is based on gamma rays from the element hydrogen -- mainly in the form of water ice. Regions of high ice content are shown in violet and blue and those low in ice content are shown in red. The very ice-rich region at the north pole is due to a permanent polar cap of water ice on the surface. Elsewhere in this region, the ice is buried under several to a few tens of centimeters of dry soil. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/UA + Larger view
The complement of the Phoenix spacecraft and its scientific instruments are ideally suited to uncover clues to the geologic history and biological potential of the Martian arctic. Phoenix will be the first mission to return data from either polar region providing an important contribution to the overall Mars science strategy "Follow the Water" and will be instrumental in achieving the four science goals of NASA's long-term Mars Exploration Program.
--Determine whether Life ever arose on Mars
--Characterize the Climate of Mars
--Characterize the Geology of Mars
--Prepare for Human Exploration
The Phoenix Mission has two bold objectives to support these goals, which are to (1) study the history of water in the Martian arctic and (2) search for evidence of a habitable zone and assess the biological potential of the ice-soil boundary.
Related information: + Mission objectives