University Of Arizona Lands Mars Mission Grant - Tucson News Now

University Of Arizona Lands Mars Mission Grant

NASA has awarded the University of Arizona its biggest research grant in school history.  After two years of intense competion with other schools, NASA selected the UA's "Phoenix" mission to head for Mars on Monday with a $325 million grant.

Those involved in the mission say it will have a huge economic impact on the university unlike any previous UA project.  That's in addition to its huge *scientific* importance.

"Can you imagine scraping a little soil of the surface of Mars and seeing the ice?" says UA Senior Research Scientist Peter Smith.  "Nobody's ever seen this before."

It's an exciting time for scientists at the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory as they prepare to boldy go where no one has gone before.

They're beginning work to launch the proposed Phoenix Mars Scout Lander.   It will take off for Mars in the summer of 2008.  Its mission:  find the basis for life-- what scientist call white gold -- water ice.

Smith says, "When we get there our first goal is to study the history of water. Is this water we find ice? Has it been there for all eternity? Does it ever melt? Does it interact with the atmosphere?"

Unlike the Mars Pathfinder mission, the Phoenix Scout Lander will not roam around on the surface of Mars.  It will land in the northern polar region and begin taking panoramic pictures.  Then it will dig down into the surface of the ground using a robotic arm.

"We can see layering in the soil. We can see if the pebbles if they're rounded maybe from flowing water there's a lot you can tell from the composition of sands and gravel."

Tucson Congressman Jim Kolbe says the mission will have a huge economic impact on Tucson, bringing at least 50 million dollars to the university.  But the big winner is mankind.

"In fact I think the future of mankind lies in the ability to break the shackles of this earth and explore our origins beyond our planets and solar system beyond us," Kolbe says.  "This is a huge step towards doing that."

Of the $325 million from NASA, which is more than six times larger than any other single research grant in UA history, $50 million staying here in Tucson will be used to build some of the instruments on the lander.

The Phoenix mission science center will also be located in Tucson bringing in scientists from all over the world.

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