Friday, April 18, 2008

Phoenix Special > Mars Express & Phoenix



When, on the 25th of May, Phoenix arrives at Mars, it will be welcomed by a fleet of three spacecrafts orbiting the planet.

This trio awaiting the newcomer is composed by NASA's Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconaissance Orbiter and ESA's Mars Express.
And it is about this lat mission that this is all about...NASA has requested the European Agency that MEx to monitor the nail-biting, never ending, 13 minutes that will take the Phoenix to enter, to descend and to land on martian ground.

A lot of work is being done back at ESA's Space Operations Centre (ESOC), Darmstadt, Germany...flight controllers started optimising the Mars Express orbit in November and December of the last year (final adjustments may still be required depending on Phoenix's final trajectory) with the objective of having the spacecraft in place to be a priviliged witness of the final stage of Phoenix's journey from the Earth to Mars.

But that's not all, onboard Mars Express is the Lander Communciations System (MELACOM), which was originally designed to communicate with the Beagle lander, so, what what have operations and flight dynamics specialists at ESOC do? They have taken advantage of the existing system design and EDL pointing mode that will allow MEx to point towards the newcomer during the Entry, Descent and landing phase.

How will this happen?
The European spacecraft will perform a high-speed slew as MELACOM tracks Phoenix, rotating about one axis at a two to three times faster speed than normal, then the system will receive data that will permit NASA to confirm Phoenix's speed and acceleration while it crosses the Mars atmosphere.

Another request coming from NASA to the Mars Express team was to designe and implement a 'lander pointing mode'. This will be of critical importance since it will permit the European mission, in case of anything goes wrong, to transmit telecommands to Phoenix and receive data from it on the surface.

Mars Express will, definitely, not be a mere spectator of the incoming show...several instruments onboard will be working hard...the mission's PFS (Planetary Fourier Spectrometer) will survey the martian atmosphere before and after descent, this will be of great importance for future eandeavours to the Red Planet since it will help to characterise how the descent trajectory will be affected by the atmosphere.
SPICAM, the Ultraviolet and Infrared Atmospheric Spectrometer, will sound measurements of the atmosphere, prior to EDL, to study the density of carbon dioxide at altitudes of 50 to 150 km.

Something that is leaving really curious is to know if the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) will be able to image Phoenix as it arrives to Mars...

ESA will also, for the first time, support NASA with the delta-DOR equipment installed at the Agency's two deep-space tracking stations, in Cebreros, Spain, and New Norcia, Australia.

A lot of work originates a lot of questions...would you like to know more about what is the role that Mars Express will play during the arrival of Phoenix? And after? Is there something you would like to know in more detail? Is there a question floating in the air? Convince to come down and land at...yes, spacEurope's next Live Q'n'A. Answers will be here on May 8, nearly two weeks prior to Phoenix's landing, and provided by the ones with the knowledge to do so.
This time we will have not one, but two guests, forming a team to face spacEurope's readers inquisition.
Who are they?
Michel Denis, Head of the MARS EXPRESS Mission Operations Unit, and Mars Express-Phoenix Service Manager, Peter Schmitz.
We are going to be in good company, aren't we?
Don't miss it, bring what you can, take what you need on Thursday, May 8, 1200-1300UTC.

And now for something completely different...
I have received a phone call informing me that the prizes for the Through the Eyes of the Phoenix Competition are already at the Lisbon Airport waiting for me to pick them up...
And why, if I may ask, aren't your works already at my mailbox? Give it a go! Have a creative weekend!

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