By Alexis Madriga

May 14, Wired

On Sunday, May 25, the Mars Phoenix Lander will plunge through the red planet's atmosphere in search of water -- and possibly look for evidence of life on Mars.

In less than two weeks, the Mars Phoenix Lander could realize scientists' long-delayed dream of directly finding Martian ice for the first time. To date, the evidence for water on Mars has been indirect.

And while the Phoenix Lander isn't specifically looking for life, the lander's instrumentation may also find evidence of extraterrestrial organisms.

"If we're successful, this mission will be remembered for being the first to do direct analysis of ice or water on the surface of Mars," said NASA's Mike Gross, who engineered the mission's scientific instrumentation. "We'll dig through the topsoil layers and ice to learn ... whether that environment is or was possibly suitable for microorganisms to grow and reproduce."

The $420 million Phoenix mission is also the first to have its own Twitter feed, which has been sending out updates as the Phoenix approaches Mars.

The lander has traveled nearly 120 million miles since its August 2007 launch. On May 25, it will attempt a landing inside an area about twice the size of Hong Kong, a mere 2,000 square kilometers.

The new NASA mission comes after two major setbacks for Martian landers. NASA's Mars Polar Lander mission disappeared in January 1999 after arriving at the planet, and the European Space Agency's Beagle 2, which was designed to search for signs of life, met the same fate on Christmas Day in 2003.

Read more this news quote

image: The Phoenix mission is a joint effort between the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Lockheed-Martin and the University of Arizona. (Source: Corby Waste/UA/NASA/JPL)