While Dawn waits its turn on the launch pad, the folks at NASA have focused attention on their next interplanetary adventure, the Mars-bound Phoenix lander. The launch window for Phoenix begins early on August 3rd, and the craft is set to touch down on the Red Planet 10 months later.
Today key scientists and planners spoke with reporters and shared their enthusiasm for the upcoming mission. As with other recent Mars craft, this one's all about the water. What makes Phoenix different is that it's going to sample the north-polar region of Mars — a place where previous observations suggest water lies hidden just below the surface. Phoenix isn't a rover, but it's got a deep-digging robotic claw 2.3 meters (7.7 feet) long that will serve up scoops of soil to be analyzed for organic compounds.
NASA scientists did try this type of thing before. Their last attempt, Mars Polar Lander, entered the Martian atmosphere on December 3, 1999, and was never heard from again. So now, with many lessons learned, a new attempt has risen from MPL's ashes, so to speak.
A NASA press release contains some details about the mission and launch. The mission website has tons more. But if you want some quality entertainment, check out the videos. My favorite one comes from Maas Digital — the same people who produced the cool Mars Exploration Rover entry movie. Click on the image above for a 7.8MB QuickTime version. A higher resolution, 36MB version is available here.