Reborn out of fire – follow the water
Mars is our neighbour in the outer solar system – however, as it happens to be with neighbours they are always a challenge and so is Mars – the Red Planet. The list of failed Mars missions is long. Despite this, another mission is put on the launch pad in Florida for lift-off in a few weeks from now.
The name of the programme, Phoenix, is taken from the ancient mythological bird which was reborn from its own ashes to rise up again nicer, faster, stronger, reaching for the sky.
And indeed – the scheduled Phoenix mission is a re-flight of many experiments from previous missions which failed. One could call this recycling but this wouldn’t sound as nice.
Phoenix will reuse components from two unsuccessful Mars missions, the Mars Polar Lander and Mars Surveyor Lander.
Mars Polar Lander slammed into the Mars at 75 km/h after a software glitch signalled the engine to shut off prematurely. Tragic, indeed!
Mars Surveyor Lander was cancelled before launch in 2001. Also sad, but the builder of Mars Surveyor Lander, Lockheed Martin was smart enough to keep the probe in storage since 2001. Good business for Lockheed and one should reckon that the company checked the software this time carefully to avoid mistakes like with Mars Climate Orbiter which likely burned up in Mars’ atmosphere because of a navigational error resulting from a mix-up between NASA and its contractor Lockheed Martin in converting metric and English measurements. Ironically, the Climate Orbiter re-flew an instrument from the Mars Observer spacecraft lost in 1993 …
However, Phoenix is now intended to put things right again. All the hopes of the Mars community are on the little spacecraft which does look a bit like a bird, when after arrival on Martian ground the solar arrays-wings are unfolded and the stereo camera-head mounted on a kind of rack tower will be erected in a upright position away from the main body. A robotic arm will drill into the North pole’s ice-rich soil. Here, in the ice-covered region, the instruments are supposed to deliver data on microbial life on the planet and the water content in the underground to a depth of up to half a meter. No Mars Lander could do this so far! The strategy in the US-American scientific Mars exploration clearly is to follow the water. By combining the results from previous missions, which investigated the South Pole in detail, NASA will gain an almost complete set of the information about how the poles determine the weather conditions on Mars.
Among the few international contributions, three are from Europe. The German Max-Planck-Institute for Solar System Research contributed much to the Surface Stereo Imager (SSI) as well as the Robotic Arm Camera (RAC) while the Swiss University of Neuchâtel provides the Atomic Force Microscope belonging to the microscopy station of MECA.
The Phoenix mission will carry Canada’s first Mars experiment – a meteorological station.
Phoenix is another mission to Mars – many expectations and hopes are flying with the spacecraft to a new world outside Earth. Even a piece of culture will be on board – in form of a DVD prepared by the Planetary Society containing Mars novels, messages from Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke and 250.000 names posted to an online announcement.
The Phoenix DVD installed on the deck of the lander. Click to enlarge. More information here. Credit: NASA / JPL / Lockheed Martin
Phoenix is another important step in the concerted, not yet globally coordinated, approach in Mars research. Phoenix will be followed by the European ExoMars mission whose drill is designed for getting samples from 2 m under the surface. ExoMars again will hopefully be followed by the international Mars Sample Return mission – something many scientists have dreamt of for a long time.
Phoenix is another step forward to a human exploration of Mars. There is not much left to say – only: Get the scale right this time! May the weather be favourable on arrival!
Provided the mission is successful, Phoenix will become reborn several times in the future – whenever the data is processed, it will contribute significantly to our understanding of Mars – our neighbour in space!