THE prospect of people living on Mars may come a little closer to reality with the landing of a probe in two weeks' time. The Phoenix Mars Lander is designed to find out whether the planet can, or even does, support life. Its work will prove crucial to Nasa's plans for a future base there. If all goes to plan after landing, it will dig down through the icy soil to look for evidence that life once existed, and perhaps still does, on Mars. It is also expected to collect and analyse the first samples of frozen water to be taken from another planet. Dr David Catling, an astrobiologist at Bristol University, who is a co-investigator on the Phoenix science team, said: "It will be looking for organic molecules that make up living organisms." Phoenix will make the most northerly landing yet on Mars in an area that scientists now believe offers the best chance of finding signs of life in the planet's permafrost. Using an eight-foot robotic arm, it will dig down three feet to reach ice and soil that have been protected from the harsh conditions. The lander will also analyse the atmosphere and is carrying a mobile weather station to tell scientists about the environment on the planet. Ultimately, this could help Nasa identify potential sites for future bases. Dr Rich Zurek, the chief scientist for Nasa's Mars programme, said: "It should help us learn about what the implications will be for when astronauts are walking around on the planet." If successful, Phoenix will spend up to 150 Martian days (which are just over 24 hours long) carrying out experiments and beaming the data back to Earth. But as the Martian winter plunges the lander into darkness, its solar panels will no longer be able to produce enough power to sustain the craft.