NASA’s Phoenix lands successfully on Mars

by Chris Bergin

Following its opening journey on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta II launch vehicle, NASA’s Phoenix mission bridged the gap between Earth and Mars and – from all current indications – landed successfully. Controllers at JPL are now awaiting the first images from the newest spacecraft to land on the Red Planet.

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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.

The spacecraft must perform a series of challenging transformations and activities during the seven minutes after it enters the atmosphere to slow it from 12,000 mph to 5 mph and a soft touchdown.

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.’

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