NASA’s Mars Phoenix Lander
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration may have had to endure some justifiable criticism for its shortsighted and unimaginative manned space exploration program. But when it comes to its unmanned planetary exploration achievements, the scientists and engineers at JPL and their affiliate programs at universities and other space agencies around the world can still “Wow!” us all every once and awhile.
The Phoenix Mars Lander successfully touched down in the north Polar region of Mars at 6:53 central time today as scientists and engineers at JPL and the University of Arizona cheered the culmination of ten years of enormously stressful work. The spacecraft landed after a harrowing re-entry where a 60 feet per second nose dive is cut by two thirds less than 300 feet above the surface of the red planet by 6 small rocket thrusters.
The last Mars lander to try this trick – the Mars Polar Lander – didn’t make it and plowed ignominiously into the surface. The descent engines cut off too quickly when a sensor in the landing bag was jarred loose and mistakenly told the rockets they had already landed.
Phoenix was put through the wringer with as many tests as the engineers could think of throwing at her. In the end, the ship proved herself tough enough and the landing couldn’t have gone better.
Now comes the fun part. The Phoenix is not a rover so it won’t be wandering around looking for interesting things to examine. The Phoenix is a stationary scientific lab encompassing several disciplines including chemistry, biology, and geology. Having made a jaw droopingly accurate landing (like aiming an arrow from the pitcher’s mound at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and hitting home plate at Wrigley Field in Chicago was the way it was described on the Science channel), Phoenix is positioned to do a little digging into what we think is the tundra region of Mars.
It may be too much to ask of luck that we have landed within reach of some Martian snow. If so, call it Jackpot and celebrate our good fortune. More likely, we’ll have to find some moisture in the form of frost or permafrost below the surface. The experiments on board the lander are incredibly sophisticated. While searching for life is not the primary concern (past life on Mars is considered much more probable) the hard, permafrost will be ground down by a special tool attached to a scoop on the robotic arm. The loose material will be heated and a very sensitive gas spectrometer will determine the chemical makeup. In addition, a small but very powerful microscope will examine the contents for micro-fossils and other information.
Phoenix will not last long in the super cold. Within a few months, she will be covered in carbon dioxide ice and stop working. But as long as she is sending pictures back with her stereoscopic camera, the view should be awesome.
So credit where credit is due – to the engineers and scientists at NASA who once again have shown the remarkable reach of the human spirit and its ability to overcome almost any obstacle to satisfy our thirst for knowledge.
Rand Simberg drolly observers “The Cosmic Ghouls Missed One” referring to several Russian and American planetary missions that have come a cropper in one bizarre way or another. The Russians especially have been plagued with bad luck on their Mars landers. Just goes to show how far we are from being able to hurl ourselves out into the void and not ask for volunteers for a suicide mission.
Bob Zubrin’s infectous enthusiasm aside, we ain’t going any time soon so you can cancel your reservation at the Mars Hilton. Until we can figure out how to bring live human beings back from Mars and not dead or half dead boneless (long term space exploration may take up tp 80% of our bone minerals making them as sturdy as balsa wood), heartless (perhaps 80% of the heart muscle gone), kidneyless (ditto kidneys), and God knows what the psychological problems of living and working with 5 or 6 other humans for 3 + years in an extraordinarily small workspace/habitat – until the problem of living without gravity or creating artificial gravity can be overcome, we are stuck here.
So pass the popcorn. Watching from a distance is the best we can hope for – at least in my lifetime.