To go for the gold, in this case, the water, Phoenix will dig down below the surface in order to uncover ice on its landing site and then proceed to a series of observations using state-of-the-art technology that will provide us answers with unprecedented detail and accuracy, marking a new ground on the exploration of another planet and, who knows, preparing the path for the future human exploration of Mars.
Phoenix rose from the ashes of Mars Polar Lander that crashed in December 1999 on the surface of Mars and from Mars Surveyor 2001 Lander (that was built, but never launched due to cancellation of the project in May 2000). The SSI (Surface Stereoscopic Imager), the RAC (Robotic Arm Camera) and the TEGA (Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer), instruments from the previous polar lander, were incorporated in the following mission.
Despite some modifications in order to enhance robustness and science return, the Phoenix Lander is similar to the one planned for 2001.
The mission, lead by Peter Smith from the University of Arizona, is also an hymn to international cooperation: Although we might look at the lander as a whole, it is composed by several different components, each of them designed and built by many different people and institutions.
The Phoenix is the result of the dedicated work of many individuals, from many different places and with specific skills.
Some of the technology was developed by European partners as a consequence of previously demonstrated trustfulness know-how.
SpacEurope will, during the following days and untill the launch, give a special attention to the Phoenix and to the European institutions, people that have been contributing to this mission and the general public with a word to say.
Past achievements granted the prestige of the MPS that permitted it to be involved in a wide number of exciting, innovative, space exploration projects.
One of them is, of course, the Phoenix mission and this blog’s author wanted to know what were the specific precedents and reasons that allowed the MPS to participate in this mission.
The RAC team at the MPS (formerly MPAE) during development and integration of the instrument (1997-2000). Click to enlarge.
The excellent know-how of the MPS for low-noise CCD read out systems was first demonstrated by the HMC camera (Halley Multi-Color Camera), which was designed to provide high-resolution images of the nucleus and the coma of Halley's comet in nine colors and two polarizations, later on the CCD readouts, for DISR/Huygens and Mars Pathfinder (Please consult fig. 1 and 2 for detailed information).
The recognition of MPS’s CCD technology was demonstrated by its use in the Optical Microscope that was added to MECA onboard Phoenix.
The same CCD and readout was also supposed to be used for the SSI. However, late in the process, it was decided to equip SSI with optics and CCDs like the ones used by MER (Mars Exploration Rover) rather than CCDs from MPS, due to the higher resolution that would be provided by the MER-like units (1024*1024 versus 256*256 per eye).
The Robotic Arm Camera made its first appearance on the Mars Polar Lander (1999), later modified for the Mars Surveyor 2001.
So, after all this work, what are we going to do?
Let us imagine...everything went well during the Phoenix journey and its entry, descent and landing...
The lander wakes up and is ready for a working day on Mars, what will be the role of the MPS components in the mission context?
The RAC (fig. 3) was designed and integrated by MPS in collaboration with Lunar Planetary Laboratory (LPL), Tucson, is a light-weight camera with adjustable focus. The distance to the object in focus can be varied from 11 mm up to infinity. Therefore the RAC can be used for both high-resolution imaging of soil/trench walls (it will be able to retrieve colour images with a resolution of better than 50 µm...) and for atmospheric studies as well as for acquisition of fast, low-data-volume (low-resolution) panoramas.
One important aspect of the RAC is the fact of having its own illumination system that consists in 52 blue LEDs, 26 green LEDs and 26 red LEDs. This will permit important spectral information of nearby objects.
Several instruments onboard the Phoenix spacecraft, as, for example, those of MECA and TEGA, can only deal with a few samples over the entire mission. This fact demonstrates the need to carefully select the samples that shall be analyzed by these instruments. Here both SSI, built by the University of Arizona, and Max Planck Institute’s Robotic Arm Camera will lead the way...
As the Robotic Arm digs into the soil and picks up samples for further analysis, the camera, attached to the Robotic Arm (RA) just above the scoop, will provide images with a resolution of 23 microns per pixel.
Summarizing, the RAC will have two key tasks during the mission:
1) Characterize potential (!) samples to be further analyzed by the Phoenix science payload. The RAC will share this task with SSI in the case, where a given soil unit can be imaged by both cameras.
2) Characterize samples that have already been (!) accumulated in the Robotic Arm’s scoop.
So, now, while the Phoenix goes through its last preparations at the Kennedy Space Center, people in charge get assured that everything will work out just fine for the August great moment, when a Delta II 7925, manufactured by United Launch Alliance, roaring and leaving a fiery trail behind it will announce us that the Phoenix spacecraft, on the quest for the Martian Arctic secrets, is on its way.