Friday, August 03, 2012

Happy 5th, Phoenix Mars Lander!

The above image is an artist's concept of the Phoenix Mars lander on the Martian surface, with its instruments and solar arrays deployed. The main features of the lander are labeled. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA/Lockheed Martin
This Saturday, August 4th, marks the 5th anniversary of the launch of NASA's Phoenix Mars lander, from Cape Canaveral, atop a Delta II rocket (August 4, 2007). The Phoenix robotic mission was developed and flown as part of NASA's Mars Scout Program. The program was headed by the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, under the direction of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena California (JPL). The program was a partnership of universities in the U.S., Canada, Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, the U.K., NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, the Finnish Meteorological Institute, Lockheed Martin Space Systems, MacDonald Dettwiler & Associates and other aerospace companies.
Phoenix was the first mission to Mars led by a public university in NASA history. It was led directly from the University of Arizona's campus in Tucson, with project management at JPL, and project development at Lockheed Martin in Denver, Colorado. The operational funding for the mission extended through November 10, 2008.
The lander made its fiery entrance and soft landing on May 25, 2008. Touchdown was at Green Valley, near the Martian northern polar cap (68.22°N 125.7°W).
The Phoenix mission had two goals. One was to study the geologic history of water, the key to unlocking the story of past climate change. The second was evaluate past or potential planetary habitability in the ice-soil boundary. Phoenix's instruments were suitable for uncovering information on the geological and possibly biological history of the Martian Arctic. Phoenix was the first mission to return data from either of the poles, and contributed to NASA's main strategy for Mars exploration, "Follow the water."

The mission was chosen to be a fixed lander rather than a rover because:
  1. costs were reduced through reuse of earlier equipment;
  2. the area of Mars where Phoenix would land was thought to be relatively uniform and thus traveling was of less value; and
  3. the equipment weight that would be required to allow Phoenix to travel could instead be dedicated to more and better scientific instruments.

The primary mission was expected to last 90 sols (Martian days) – just over 92 Earth days. However, the craft exceeded this by a little over two months before succumbing to the increasing cold and dark of an advancing Martian winter. Researchers had hoped that the lander would survive into the Martian winter so that it could witness polar ice developing around it – perhaps up to 1 meter of solid carbon dioxide ice could have appeared. Even had it survived some of the winter, the intense cold would have prevented it from lasting all the way through.

Attached to the deck of the lander (next to the US flag) is the "Phoenix DVD", compiled by the Planetary Society. The disc contains Visions of Mars, a multimedia collection of literature and art about the Red Planet. Works include the text of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds (and the radio broadcast by Orson Welles), Percival Lowell's Mars as the Abode of Life with a map of his proposed canals, Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, and Kim Stanley Robinson's Green Mars. There are also messages directly addressed to future Martian visitors or settlers from, among others, Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke. In 2006, The Planetary Society collected a quarter million names submitted through the Internet and placed them on the disc, which claims, on the front, to be "the first library on Mars." This Phoenix DVD is similar to the Voyager Golden Record that was sent on the Voyager 1 & 2 missions.

To learn more about the Phoenix Mars Lander mission, visit phoenix.lpl.arizona.edu and www.nasa.gov/phoenix .

To learn more about NASA's ongoing Mars Exploration Program, visit mars.jpl.nasa.gov .

To follow NASA's latest robotic visitor, the Mars Science Laboratory and Curiosity rover, visit www.nasa.gov/msl and mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl . You can follow the Curiosity mission on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/marscuriosity and on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/marscuriosity .

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