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The Phoenix Has Landed

The Phoenix Has LandedAssociate Professor of Chemistry Sam Kounaves, co-investigator on NASA's recent mission to Mars, gains media attention after the spacecraft's successful landing.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [06.02.08] On May 25, just shy of 10 months since its August 4 launch, NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander officially touched down on Martian soil. Now, Associate Professor of Chemistry and mission co-investigator Sam Kounaves and his team anxiously wait to begin analyses that may bring the world one step closer to knowing whether life on Mars is or ever was possible.

The Washington Post reported the Phoenix had a gentle, parachuted landing just outside the planet's north pole, farther north than past landings. With numerous failed attempts made by past crafts trying to land on the planet, the Phoenix's design was modified to increases its chances of a successful landing, according to the Post. Kounaves told that today's lander "bears little resemblance to the original concept" conceived four years prior to the launch.

Described as looking like a "giant winged bug" by the Boston Globe, the Phoenix contains a complete wet-chemistry lab, or Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA). The MECA will collect wet material -- specifically ice -- from beneath the planet's surface for the first time.

"We have no solid evidence there is life on Mars," Kounaves told the Globe back in August 2007. "If we find a fossil, that answers the question of past life there. Even if we just find organisms, that means life is feasible."

"One vision is for humans to land on Mars and maybe stay there for a year, and we wouldn't want to go there without knowing if the soil was toxic of friendly," Kounaves said in an interview with WBUR.

The lander includes four single-use beakers for collection, each of which has 26 sensors that allow it to effectively "taste and smell the Martian soil," Kounaves told the Christian Science Monitor.Kounaves will lead the wet chemistry analysis of the soil samples, working primarily from Tucson, where the multi-disciplinary science team has come together at the University of Arizona.

"If we can find nitrates, carbonates and the like in the soil, then we'll know the planet is much friendlier for life," he told the Washington Post. "These minerals have been missing in all the Mars missions, but they should be there. We think they may well be below the surface, where they're protected from the [ultraviolet] rays that bombard the planet."

In the months leading up to the landing, Kounaves' students "had fun monitoring the temperature of the chemistry cells during the cruise,"he told Chemical & Engineering News Kounaves has had doctoral, master'sand even undergraduate students working in his lab on the project.

The solar-powered spacecraft is designed to function on the planet for three months and may lead to larger expeditions in the same area in the future.

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