PHOENIX - Scientists at the University of Arizona have been awarded a $325 million NASA grant for an upcoming mission to Mars, beating out Arizona State University and two other finalists.
The Phoenix Mission is planned for 2007 and will carry equipment designed by university scientists Peter Smith and William Boynton.
As part of the mission, the team will design a lander equipped with a robotic arm which will burrow into an area in the planet’s northern plains and retrieve soil samples for analysis.
“We’re going to look for organic compounds (in the samples) and if we find organic compounds we’ll look for telltale signatures of life,’’ Boynton said.
The award is in some respects a second chance for the two scientists.
In 1999, the Mars Polar Lander carried cameras, robotic arms and a thermal gas analyzer designed by the pair.
But communications were lost with the lander as it began to enter the planet’s atmosphere and it never fulfilled the mission.
On Monday, Boynton said he was riding an elevator when he learned that the university had been awarded the grant.
“My project manager called me and said, ‘Are you sitting down?’ and I said ‘No, I’m standing up, but do you have good news?’ and she said ‘Yes!,’’ Boynton said. “We’re flying pretty high.’’
The $325 million grant is more than six times larger than any other single research grant awarded in university history, said Michael Drake, director of the university’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.
“It’s an exciting mission that’s going to have a huge economic impact on the city of Tucson, pumping in something like $125 million over about three years,’’ Drake said.
Portions of the grant will go to subcontractors including Lockheed Martin in Denver, but more than $50 million will remain at the university. The mission will also be operated from the university.
University President Peter Likins was thrilled with NASA’s decision.
“We’ve had instruments on other flights, but the Phoenix Mission is our project. We’re not only designing and building two of the instruments but we also are responsible for the whole science operations plan and we’ll have a science operations center where all the data is analyzed,’’ Likins said.