The Arizona Republic
Nearly eight years later, the bitter feeling still lingers.
It was Dec. 3, 1999, and University of Arizona scientist Peter Smith was standing in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The news was slowly sinking in that one of the biggest projects of his career, the Mars Polar Lander, had failed.
Smith was supposed to receive color photos that day from a camera he developed for the spacecraft. But the $165 million Polar Lander had vanished, losing contact with NASA as it descended toward the Red Planet.
“It’s like losing a family member,” he recalls. “You just can’t quite believe that was it.”
Out of that debacle now rises an even larger and more sophisticated mission that could put Smith and UA in the history books.
The Phoenix Mars Mission, which is scheduled to launch early Friday from Cape Canaveral, Fla., could go a long way toward redeeming the earlier Mars failures and answer some age-old questions: Is Mars suitable for life? And if it’s not now, was it ever?
The data Phoenix gathers will be one more small step in humans’ effort to eventually send astronauts to Mars.
The mission takes its name from the mythical Phoenix bird and resurrects technology from the ill-fated Polar Lander and the Mars Surveyor Lander, a follow-up lander that was canceled.
The $420 million mission is groundbreaking on several fronts. Phoenix is the first Mars mission led by a university. The spacecraft will be the first to dig as much as three feet beneath the planet’s icy surface, using an eight-foot robotic arm. No other spaceship has landed before in the northern polar region of Mars, where orbiting cameras have detected evidence of subsurface ice.
The ice may periodically melt, and where there is water, there could be life.
In a one-story stucco building about a mile from the UA campus, the pace of work has accelerated.
This is command central, the headquarters for science operations. The building on Sixth Avenue blends into the neighborhood except for a brilliant mural that depicts the spacecraft’s launch and cruise.
Computers and big screens are being brought in. About 50 scientists, engineers, support staff and students work at computers or go over paperwork. Some practice sending commands to a replica Phoenix lander housed in a gymnasium-size room.
In another room filled with PCs, Jet Propulsion Lab scientists will send commands to the Phoenix Mars instruments, using a communications link called the Deep Space Network. It tracks and controls the spacecraft using antennas in Spain, Australia and California’s Mojave Desert.
Past the lobby is the heart of the center, where scientists overseeing the craft’s seven instruments will decide what experiments to conduct. The mission is expected to draw scientists to Tucson from several American universities and around the world.
They will have to work fast. The solar-powered craft, which will land in May, has an expected life of 90 days before the Martian winter sets in and blankets the craft in ice, freezing it to death.
Smith, 59, oversees the mission from a narrow office off the main room. His days are long, as he ensures the mission is on track and his team practices operating the scientific instruments.
On a recent day, Smith raced to meet an 11 a.m. deadline on a slide presentation for a NASA safety review.
The low-key scientist doesn’t sugarcoat the pressure his team is under, calling the 90-day window to complete experiments “pretty scary.”
Smith has shuttled between Tucson and Colorado, Los Angeles and Florida to prepare for the launch. While UA leads the mission, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA get the craft to Mars and track and communicate with it.
Phoenix is viewed as a steppingstone to future Mars missions, part of a new NASA strategy to develop less expensive, innovative spacecraft.
“Our goals are not so much finding life itself but to find places where life could exist on Mars,” Smith said. “And this is important because we haven’t found those places yet.”
Phoenix marks Smith’s seventh Mars mission.
Ten years ago, he led the camera team on the Mars Pathfinder, capturing striking photos of the Red Planet. The most famous is the Twin Peaks image that shows close-ups of rust-colored rocks and two distant hills.
Smith hoped to repeat his success a few years later on the Polar Lander mission. But after NASA lost contact with the craft, disappointment sank in.
“Couldn’t we get at least one picture?” he thought.
He still wonders what could have been.
“We were told the landing site . . . was on the edge of a big depression, so our images would have looked across this whole sweeping view,” he said. “It would have been absolutely spectacular.”
If the Phoenix mission is successful, it will take away some of the sting.
The mission hasn’t been without significant challenges so far.
Earlier this year, its $386 million budget ballooned past $400 million after the landing radar needed to be stabilized.
The search for a safe landing site has been difficult. Scientists thought the arctic region would be flat and featureless, but close examination showed boulders the size of small cars and buses.
To reach Mars, the spacecraft must travel 423 million miles, the equivalent of about 86,045 round trips from Phoenix to New York City.
The Aug. 3 launch and nearly 10-month cruise are the less risky parts. It’s the landing that puts scientists on edge. The craft must withstand searing heat and below-freezing temperatures, then touch down without damaging scientific equipment.
Still, the odds are in NASA’s favor. The agency has an 83 percent success rate on Mars lander missions.
“We have peeled the onion down as far as we can go, finding problems and fixing them,” Smith said. “The problem is there’s no guarantee we’ve found all the problems and fixed all the problems. It’s the unknowns that are left.”
The mission is getting worldwide attention from newspapers, scientific journals and Web sites. The May 2008 landing will generate even more interest, especially when the first photos from Mars are released.
UA’s reputation also stands to benefit.
Thanks to large research grants in space science, the National Science Foundation recently ranked UA the No. 1 university for research expenditures in the physical sciences, which include astronomy, chemistry and physics.
UA President Robert Shelton said it’s important for a university to have certain “pinnacles of excellence” where people recognize the university as being the best.
“That recognition carries over into other areas,” he said.
UA could deepen its mark with scientific discoveries from the mission.
Smith won’t breathe easy until the craft lands on Mars, deploys its solar panels and sends back a clear signal. Then, within a few days, scientists can begin their search for signs of water.
Smith’s eyes shine at the possibility of finding an environment favorable to life. “I think it will stimulate future missions to go to that region of Mars, perhaps one day bringing back samples to Earth laboratories where we could actually find out what kind of life it is, if it’s there.” Smith said.
ABOUT PETER SMITH
Title: Principal investigator, Phoenix Mars Mission.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in physics from University of California-Berkeley. Master’s degree in optical sciences from University of Arizona.
Work history: A research scientist at UA since 1978. His research focused on Venus and Jupiter and then on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.
Achievements: Lead scientist for the color camera aboard the 1996 Mars Pathfinder Mission, which captured sweeping panoramic photos of the Red Planet.
How he got interested in science: His father was a medical researcher who developed an inexpensive vaccine for yellow fever and later became a professor of microbiology at UA. As a child, Smith overheard his father having long, technical discussions with other scientists who visited his house. Smith had his own chemistry set and tried to make explosives when he was about 10. Fortunately, that experiment failed.
Family: His wife, Dana, is a nurse practitioner and artist. His daughter, Sara, is a geology student at UA.