Thursday, April 24, 2008

Phoenix Special > 30 Days to Mars! > With Dr. Charles Elachi, Director of JPL

Dear SpacEurope readers

In 30 days, the Phoenix lander will arrive at Mars after journeying 295 days and more than 600 million kilometers. At 4:26 p.m. Pacific Time (23:26 Universal Time) on May 25, Phoenix will separate from the cruise stage to begin its entry into the Martian atmosphere. If all goes well, 12 minutes later the lander will touch down safely in the north polar region of Mars. And days later, Phoenix will be the first mission to reach out and touch the water ice on the Red Planet. Its goal: to study the history of water on the planet, and to determine whether the Martian polar environment has ever been habitable.

As we count down the days to landing, anticipation is building here at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Along with our partners in this endeavor – the University of Arizona, which will lead the science operations; and Lockheed Martin in Denver, where the lander was built – we have been very busy preparing for landing. Our teams have practiced multiple scenarios during operational readiness tests (some for landing, and others for surface operations) to prepare for the best, and the worst, of what Mars can throw our way. This Monday, April 28, we will review the preparations that have already been made, and on Tuesday the team will begin a final operational readiness test for that nerve-wracking event known as EDL, short for Entry, Descent, and Landing.

There’s no doubt that EDL is the most exciting time of a landed mission.
But while we have enjoyed two successful landings this decade with the twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, we are also reminded that landing on Mars is always a difficult proposition. Readers in the U.S. and Europe will recall that other spacecraft in the past 10 years have been lost at Mars during landing. So though we have enjoyed a string of successes, we remain aware that the overall success rate at the Red Planet is sobering - less than 50-percent. The safety margins, however, are acceptable, and the potential science rewards this mission offers warrant the risk.
To quote Theodore Roosevelt, "Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checked by failure...than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

I’d like to acknowledge the men and women who have worked on the Phoenix project at NASA/JPL, Lockheed Martin and the University of Arizona. This incredibly dedicated and passionate group of people, all of them explorers in their own right, have applied themselves to the daunting challenges of getting this mission to Mars. Some of these individuals have been highlighted in a video series on the challenges, which I encourage you to watch at

Ahead of us are uncharted territories, both in terms of engineering and destination. I look forward to landing day and I very much appreciate your interest in the mission.
I hope you'll join us in watching the dramatic events on May 25 either on NASA TV or via the Webcast available at

Best Regards,
Charles Elachi
Director, Jet Propulsion Laboratory


Editor’s note:

See how time flies? Seems like it was yesterday that we were signalling the passage of the half hundred of days for the landing of Phoenix and here we are, already, at a 30 days distance from accomplishing that goal.
Why the choice of those three letters,
JPL, to mark this special milestone?

Although the Phoenix mission has the particularity of being led, for the first time, by a public University, the
University of Arizona to be more precise, and from where spacEurope has already counted with the presence of key representatives, like the institution’s President, Robert Shelton and Peter Smith, the scientist leading this Scout Class Mission, it is indispensable to make reference to the other two vertices of the triangle…Lockheed Martin Space Systems (LMSS), responsible for the flight system management and, of course, JPL, the historic Laboratory is also involved, with a human and technological contribute indispensable for the success of the quest.
It was to
JPL that PI Peter Smith delegated the project management, this is personified by Barry Goldstein, leading a team of engineers and scientists with a vast experience in space exploration missions.
Also from
JPL is Leslie Tamppari, project scientist working close to Peter Smith on leading a team of scientists coming from many different nations and areas of expertise, making of this mission a truly international effort to know more about Mars.

JPL has been developing some hard work within the Phoenix mission since extremely crucial aspects of the mission are under the Laboratory responsibility, just check what those guys have on their shoulders…: the payload management, flight systems, mission operations providing the interface to the Deep Space Network, sending command sequences and receiving data, and maintaining the correct trajectory and performing the necessary adjustments, safely guiding Phoenix towards its destiny. Enough? No way…we need the most experienced ones to get a mission to the Martian surface…and where are they? Yes, you have guessed…
It will be also the
JPL team to show the way to Phoenix through the (the palms of my hands are already getting sweaty…) Entry, Descent & Landing process.

And after a successful landing JPL will be still under the spotlight since instruments vital for the success of the mission have the Laboratory work on it, this is the case of the robotic arm onboard Phoenix, built by JPL, and the chemistry laboratory, that was assembled by the institution, and which will be capable of characterizing the soil and ice chemistry, providing long waited answers.

This are all the reasons that leaded me to think that it would be unforgivable not to make a special reference to the work developed by the laboratory that has taken us so far through its 72 years of history, that was why I invited
Dr. Charles Elachi, Director of JPL, and also vice president of the California Institute of Technology, to share with the readers some of his thoughts regarding the Phoenix mission and this special milestone and to whom I would like to express my gratitude for accepting spacEurope’s challenge, offering us some of his, as we all are well aware of, precious time.

30 Days to Mars and counting!

Rui Borges
SpacEurope editor

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