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Solar-powered Mars lander to seek buried ice

The Phoenix Mars Lander, shown in a model, will launch in August 2007 and is expected to reach Mars six months later. The model is being built at the Phoenix Mission Control near the University of Arizona.

The Phoenix Mars Lander, shown in a model, will launch in August 2007 and is expected to reach Mars six months later. The model is being built at the Phoenix Mission Control near the University of Arizona.

University of Arizona scientist Peter H. Smith plans to pause to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the first successful landing on Mars.

For him, the first Viking landing on July 20, 1976, marked a milestone in space exploration.

Smith will be on Capitol Hill on Thursday with NASA officials and national leaders to attend a reception honoring the landing.

The anniversary also means that as principal investigator of the $385 million Phoenix Mars Lander, Smith has little more than a year of preparation time before the Aug. 3, 2007, launch.

But he feels confident.

“We are doing great,” he said.

In two weeks, Smith expects to have a fully assembled spacecraft at the Lockheed Martin Space Systems laboratory in Denver.

“We’ll be in the test phase,” he said from his Tucson operations center. “We have all the instruments being delivered, and the final one is coming next week to be bolted onto the spacecraft.”

Then it’s time for extensive testing to make sure everything works, he said.

Meanwhile, Smith’s team of scientists in Tucson is building an exact mock-up of the spacecraft, a model that will allow the team to replicate any situation the real craft might experience.

It could be anything from pre-landing practice to post-landing science surface mission operations to uncover clues about the history of water and potential for people to live on the red planet.

The payload includes a nearly eight-foot robotic arm for digging through soil into ice, a robotic arm camera and a surface stereo camera.

It also will have a descent camera, a meteorological station, high-temperature furnaces, a mass spectrometer, a powerful atomic force microscope and a miniature chemistry laboratory.

In many ways, the Phoenix Mission, named for the mythical bird that rose from ashes, resembles the two Viking missions, the one that landed July 20, 1976, and Viking 2 that landed Sept. 3, 1976.

“We have a robotic arm. We are immobile,” Smith said. “We also have instruments on deck to understand the chemistry, perhaps biology – the organic content of the soil, and we have cameras.

“We have the same type of operations in that we grab samples with an arm and analyze the material. And we don’t come back (to Earth).”

But Phoenix is different from the Viking missions in many ways, he added.

The Viking missions cost much more, some $2 billion, and used nuclear power for energy that allowed that mission to last for years. Phoenix uses solar power.

“We have a short mission,” Smith said. “We are a polar process, really trying to study the ice under the surface.”

The Viking missions did not attempt to look for ice under the surface.

“They didn’t know,” Smith said. “People thought there probably wouldn’t be ice so they didn’t try to dig deeply. They gathered surface samples.

“Their idea was that if there were any life on Mars, any signatures of it probably was distributed around the planet by wind in dust storms,” he said. “Therefore, you didn’t have to land next to the life forms. You can land anywhere, and the dust would be bringing samples from the whole planet to you.

“The Viking missions were groundbreaking in the sense that we had never before landed on another planet,” Smith said. “We still use Viking data … in terms of what kind of heat shield you need, the stability of the hypersonic phase and how to deploy a parachute.

“All the elements of the decent and landing are defined by Viking.”



Phoenix Mars Lander website: http://phoenix.lpl.arizona.edu.



1964 to 1971: Mariner spacecrafts 3 through 9. Mariner 4 was the world’s first spacecraft to take close-up pictures of Mars as the spacecraft passed Mars.

1976: Viking 1 touched down at Chryse Planitia on July 20. Viking 2 touched down at Utopia Planitia on Sept. 3. The Viking 1 lander lasted until 1982. The Viking 2 lander lasted until 1980.

1992: Mars Observer loses communication just before going into orbit around Mars and is considered lost.

1996: Mars Global Surveyor continues to orbit the planet. Mars Pathfinder rover, with cameras built by UA’s Peter H. Smith, lands on Mars, sends its last transmission in September 1997.

1998: Mars Climate Orbiter is lost on arrival.

1999: Mars Polar Lander’s spacecraft and accompanying Deep Space 2 microprobes lose contact during arrival at south pole of Mars.

2001: Mars Odyssey reaches orbit and continues to operate.

2003: Mars rover Spirit sets down via parachute in the Gusev Crater region, and has examined rocks that suggest a once wet history. It continues to operate, although one of six wheels does not work and its grinding wheel is badly worn.

2003: Mars rover Opportunity parachutes to Meridiani plains three weeks after Spirit. It finds geological evidence of past water activity and continues to operate although parts are showing wear.

Aug. 11, 2005: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launched. The craft, with UA’s HiRISE telescope/camera, entered orbit in March.

Source: NASA

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