ULA Delta II launches with NASA’s Mars-bound Phoenix

by Chris Bergin

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta II launch vehicle has launched from Cape Canaveral’s launch complex 17A, carrying NASA’s Phoenix spacecraft, set for a 2008 arrival at the north pole of Mars.

NASASpaceflight.com covered the launch as a live event, with background, images, live updates and free launch videos, available on the links below (read more).


**FREE Delta II/Phoenix Launch Video** (Three videos: T-30 Seconds to T+120 seconds. Second Stage flight to SECO. Launch Replays) – Free to all forum members (registration is free – we do not use your e-mail for spam, only to send you your forum password – which is automated)..


‘Our team is extremely proud to deliver mission success for such long-standing customers as NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory,’ said Jim Crocker, vice president of Sensing and Exploration Systems at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company. ‘We have a distinguished history of delivering Mars missions for NASA and we look forward to seeing the great science Phoenix will discover.

‘The Lockheed Martin, JPL and University of Arizona teams have worked closely together over the last few years to make this mission a success and this morning’s launch is a majestic start to the voyage.’

‘The entire series of launch-day events went like clockwork. Launch and initial acquisition is the first of our critical events, and it couldn’t have gone smother,’ said Ed Sedivy, spacecraft program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company.

‘I’m thrilled to be on our way. I couldn’t be more proud of the team of women and men whose hard work and tremendous dedication are helping make NASA’s expanded knowledge of our solar system a reality.’

‘Landing on Mars is the most challenging critical event we execute in planetary exploration,’ said Tim Gasparrini, deputy program manager for Phoenix entry, decent and landing at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company.

‘Now that we are safely on the way to Mars, our entry, decent and landing team will draw upon our decades of experience in exploring the universe and focus its energy on a successful landing and surface science operations.’

‘Today’s launch is the first step in the long journey to the surface of Mars,’ added Phoenix Principal Investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, Tucson.
‘We certainly are excited about launching, but we still are concerned about our actual landing, the most difficult step of this mission.’


Phoenix was launched via the 126 feet tall, three stage Delta II (7925-9.5 configuration), with a 9.5-foot diameter payload fairing. The Mars-bound spacecraft will be injected via ATK’s Star 48B solid-propellant third stage.

The launch was set to take place on Friday, before poor weather predicted at launch time caused a 24 hour delay.

The Delta II utilized six ground start solid motors and three air start solids. Stage I-II separation occured eight seconds after first stage main engine cut-off (MECO). At first second-stage cut-off, the vehicle was in a 90 nmi (167 km) circular parking orbit.

Spacecraft separation will occured 387.5 sec after third-stage ignition – over 84 minutes after launch. Confirmation of spacecraft seperation was not immediate, due to a lockup of third stage data.

The spacecraft established communications with its ground team via the Goldstone, California, antenna station of NASA’s Deep Space Network at 7:02 a.m. EDT, after separating from the third stage of the launch vehicle was confirmed.

‘The launch team did a spectacular job getting us on the way.’ said Barry Goldstein, Phoenix project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

‘Our trajectory is still being evaluated in detail; however we are well within expected limits for a successful journey to the red planet. We are all thrilled!’


The $414 million Phoenix science mission is tasked with finding out if the northern reaches of the red planet has an environment suitable for microbial life. The 772-pound, Lockheed Martin built Phoenix lander will ‘soft land’ – the first such landing since the Viking mission – on Mars on May 25, 2008.

For that key element of the mission, the landing, Phoenix is equipped with a pulsed thruster method of deceleration. The system uses an ultra-lightweight landing system that allows the spacecraft to carry the heavier scientific payload.

Phoenix uses a heat shield to slow its high-speed entry, followed by a supersonic parachute that further reduces its speed to about 135 mph. The lander then separates from the parachute and fires pulsed descent rocket engines to slow to about 5.5 mph before landing on its three legs.

‘Landing safely on Mars is difficult no matter what method you use,’ said Barry Goldstein, the project manager for Phoenix at JPL. ‘Our team has been testing the system relentlessly since 2003 to identify and address whatever vulnerabilities may exist.’

Originally part of the 2001 Mars Surveyor Program, the spacecraft that was built and tested to fly with the Mars Polar Lander mission was stored after the loss of the Surveyor spacecraft. Phoenix is aptly named after the mythological bird that rose out of the fire to be reborn.

After the 10-month, 422-million-mile journey, Phoenix will conduct its mission, managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Soon after the 90 day mission, Phoenix will die in the harsh Martian winter, encased in solid carbon dioxide ice.

Phoenix will land in the icy north of Mars between 65 deg and 72 deg latitude, an area known to the mission designers as ‘Green Valley.’ During the course of its 90-Martian-day surface mission, Phoenix will deploy its eight foot long robotic arm and dig trenches up to 0.5 m (1.6 ft) into the layers of water ice. To analyze soil samples collected by the robotic arm, Phoenix carries an oven and a portable laboratory.

Imaging technology inherited from both the Pathfinder and Mars Exploration Rover missions is used in Phoenix’s camera, located on its 2-ft mast. The camera’s two ‘eyes’ will reveal a high-resolution perspective of the landing site’s geology and also will provide range maps that will enable the team to choose ideal digging locations. Multi-spectral capability will enable the identification of local minerals.

To update NASA’s understanding of Martian atmospheric processes, Phoenix will scan the Martian atmosphere up to 20 km (12.4 miles) in altitude, obtaining data about the formation, duration, and movement of clouds, fog, and dust plumes.

The immediate goals of the Phoenix mission are to study the geologic history of water, and to search for evidence that Mars may have sustained life. Continued research will be done to determine whether dormant organisms could come back to life. As on Earth, the past history of water is found in the subsurface as liquid water changes the chemistry of the ground substance.

‘Phoenix has been designed to examine the history of the ice by measuring how liquid water has modified the chemistry and mineralogy of the soil,’ said Peter Smith, the Phoenix principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

‘In addition, our instruments can assess whether this polar environment is a habitable zone for primitive microbes. To complete the scientific characterization of the site, Phoenix will monitor polar weather and the interaction of the atmosphere with the surface.’

Related Articles