WASHINGTON (AFP) — The Mars Phoenix Lander was about 48,000 kilometers (30,000 miles) from Mars late Sunday, one hour before a planned risky maneuver to land it near the Red Planet's north pole, as NASA searches for signs of life.
Scientists at the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration said it was on course to land in a relatively rock-free, flat target area where it will dig into the icy Martian arctic.
Earlier mission officials said that they had signed off on the probe's course without any last-minute corrections and were just waiting for the first news of the landing, expected at around 7:53 pm Eastern time (2353 GMT), around 15 minutes after the probe makes contact with Mars' surface.
"This is a jittery time," Barry Goldstein, the Phoenix project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, which controls the mission, told reporters Sunday, noting the less that 50 percent success rate for all Mars missions since 1960.
In the final hours before landing the Phoenix team could only "wait and watch," he said.
But, he added, "We have a very good track record for landers" on Mars , pointing to, among others, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers the US safely placed on the planet in January 2004.
The 420-million-dollar spacecraft is to land near Mars's frigid north pole, where it will dig into the icy soil in search of signs of the conditions that would have made the area once habitable for forms of life.
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