Phoenix Lander gears up to dig in on Mars

While NASA has plenty of long term plans for Mars in the works, most of its attention these days is focused on its Phoenix Lander mission, set to launch this August. After a long, lonely journey through space, the robot craft will (hopefully) ease its way down to the surface near Mars' northern pole on May 25, 2008 and get to work digging up soil samples in search of evidence of past (or present) life on the planet. To accomplish that, the lander's equipped with 7.7 foot long robotic arm capable of digging up to three feet into the ground, which NASA expects will be enough to get at frozen water thought to be hiding beneath the Martian surface. The mission is also notable for being NASA's first attempt at a so-called "soft landing" on Mars in three decades, eschewing the airbags employed as of late in favor of a heat shield/parachute combination, with some rocket engines firing at the last minute to gently set it down Lunar Lander-style.

[Photo courtesy of Corby Waste/Jet Propulsion Laboratory]