Phoenix rustles wings for Mars

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A US Air Force C-17 cargo aircraft has carried NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander spacecraft from Colorado to Florida, where it will be launched in August.

Next spring, Phoenix will land on a Martian arctic plain and use a robotic digging arm and other instruments to determine whether the sub-soil could have supported microbial life.

Workers in Denver have been assembling and testing the spacecraft for more than a year. 'Assembly, integration and testing of the craft have gone very well. We delivered Phoenix stowed inside its back shell and it will stay in that configuration until it lands softly on Mars,' said Ed Sedivy, Phoenix programme manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver.

A Delta II launch vehicle will start Phoenix on its longer trip from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The Phoenix Mars Lander spacecraft will search for signs of ancient microbial life

NASA said opportunities for energy-efficient launches to Mars come about every two years. Orbital geometries of Mars and Earth make 2007 particularly favourable for sending a lander to far-northern Mars to arrive when sunshine is at a maximum.

'The arctic plains are the right place for the next step in Mars exploration and this is the right time to go there,' said Leslie Tamppari, Phoenix project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

'We expect to touch Martian ice for the first time, a real leap in NASA's follow-the-water strategy.'