By Irene Klotz

May 26, Reuters

PASADENA, Calif - A small science probe blazed through the salmon-colored skies of Mars on Sunday, touching down on a frozen desert at the planet's north pole to search for water and assess conditions for sustaining life, NASA officials said.

The spacecraft, known as Phoenix, landed at 4:53 p.m. PDT after a do-or-die plunge through the planet's thin atmosphere. It marked the first time that a spacecraft had successfully landed at one of the planet's polar regions.

Pulled by Mars' gravity, Phoenix was tearing along at 12,700 mph before it entered the atmosphere, which slowed the craft so it could pop out a parachute and fire thruster rockets to gently float to the ground.

"It's down, baby, it's down!," yelled a NASA flight controller, looking at signals from Mars showing that Phoenix had landed.

Scientists found in 2002 that Mars' polar regions have vast reservoirs of water frozen beneath a shallow layer of soil. Phoenix was launched August 4, 2007, to sample the water and determine if the right ingredients for life are present.

NASA attempted a landing on Mars' south pole in 1999, but a problem during the final minutes of descent ended the mission.

The U.S. space agency canceled its next Mars lander but successfully dispatched two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, to the planet's equatorial region to search for signs of past surface water.

Phoenix was created out of spare parts from the failed Polar Lander mission and the mothballed probe. Unlike the rovers, Phoenix will not be bouncing to the planet's surface in airbags, which are not suitable for larger spacecraft.

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photo: This undated artist's depiction shows the aeroshell of NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander spacecraft as it enters the Martian atmosphere en route to its landing on Mars with an expected to touchdown on the arctic plains of Mars shortly before 8P.M. EDT May 25, 2008. (REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Calech/University of Arizona/Handout)