Permanent Human Settlement of the Earth, Space and Ocean Frontiers

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Phoenix off to Mars

Ralph Buttigieg
Sydney, NSW

Today at 5.36am Florida time, a Delta II rocket blasted off carrying NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander spacecraft on its 9 month mission to Mars. The Phoenix robot will land in the Martian Arctic and analyse soil and ice samples. Its instruments won't be able to detect life but will provide information on Mars biological potential.

From the press reports.

We have worked for four years to get to this point, so we are all very excited,'' said Phoenix project manager Barry Goldstein at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

NASA hopes to land the probe on flat ground with few or no rocks at a Martian latitude equivalent to northern Alaska on Earth.

Phoenix is likely to face Martian temperatures that range from minus 73 degrees Celsius to minus 33 C.

Once it lands safely on the Martian surface, the probe will deploy a set of research tools never before used on the planet.

The solar-powered craft is equipped with a 2.35 metre robotic arm that will enter vertically into the soil, aiming to strike the icy crust that is believed to lie within a few inches of the surface.

The Phoenix's robotic arm will lift soil samples to two instruments on its deck.

One instrument will check for water and carbon-based chemicals, considered essential building blocks for life, while the other will analyze the soil chemistry.

Many scientists see signs of ancient rivers and oceans on the arid and sterile surface of Mars, and believe the planet may once have harbored some forms of life.

In 2002, the NASA probe Mars Odyssey detected huge quantities of hydrogen on the Martian surface, a likely sign there could be ice at a depth of less than one metre.

"Phoenix investigates the recent Odyssey discovery of near-surface ice in the northern plains on Mars,'' said Phoenix Principal Investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson.

"Our instruments are specially designed to find evidence for periodic melting of the ice and to assess whether this large region represents a habitable environment for Martian microbes.''

I will be following this mission with considerable interest. How much water will they find? Could they possibly find hard proof of Martian life? Lets wait and see. More here.