A Delta 2 rocket arcs over the Atlantic Ocean heading toward the planet Mars from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 5:26 a.m. on 4 August 2007 carrying the Phoenix Mars Lander which will land near Mars’ North Pole. Phoenix is the replacement for the Mars Polar Lander which crashed attempting to land on the Red Planet in December 1999. The inset shows the high altitude rocket exhaust cloud eerily lit by the Sun just below the horizon. A NASA press release gives further details on the Phoenix mission:

"We have worked for four years to get to this point, so we are all very excited," said Barry Goldstein, Phoenix project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena. "Our attention after launch will be focused on flying the spacecraft to our selected landing site, preparing for surface operations, and continuing our relentless examination and testing for the all-important descent and landing on May 25 of next year."

Phoenix will travel 422 million miles in an outward arc from Earth to Mars. It will determine whether icy soil on far northern Mars has conditions that have ever been suitable for life.

Studies of potential landing sites by spacecraft orbiting Mars led NASA to approve a site at 68.35 degrees north latitude -- the equivalent of northern Alaska -- and 233.0 degrees east longitude.

"Phoenix investigates the recent Odyssey discovery of near-surface ice in the northern plains on Mars," said Phoenix Principal Investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson.

"Our instruments are specially designed to find evidence for periodic melting of the ice and to assess whether this large region represents a habitable environment for Martian microbes."

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