NASA Sends Spacecraft to Mars on a Water-Ice Hunt

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida, August 6, 2007 (ENS) - NASA's Phoenix Mars Mission blasted off Saturday, aiming for the Red Planet's polar region. Designed to be the first mission to touch Martian water-ice, the spacecraft is equipped to dig up and analyze icy soil that lies just beneath the Martian surface.

Poised atop a Delta II rocket, the spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base at 5:26 am EDT into the sky above Florida's Atlantic coast.

Rocket carrying the Phoenix spacecraft lifts off from Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. (Photo courtesy NASA)
An hour and a half later, the Phoenix established communications with its ground team after separating from the third stage of the launch vehicle.

"The launch team did a spectacular job getting us on the way," said Barry Goldstein, Phoenix project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. "We are well within expected limits for a successful journey to the red planet. We are all thrilled!"

Phoenix is expected to reach Mars on May 25, 2008, after a 10 month, 422 million mile journey through space.

"Today's launch is the first step in the long journey to the surface of Mars. We certainly are excited about launching, but we still are concerned about our actual landing, the most difficult step of this mission," said Phoenix Principal Investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, Tucson.

The mission will study the history of the water in the ice, monitor weather of the polar region, and investigate whether the subsurface environment in the far-northern plains of Mars has ever been favorable for sustaining microbial life.

"Our instruments are specially designed to find evidence for periodic melting of the ice and to assess whether this large region represents a habitable environment for Martian microbes," said Smith. "Water is central to every type of study we will conduct on Mars."

The Canadian contribution to the mission is a weather station about the size of breadbox that includes specially adapted Light Direction and Ranging, LIDAR, technology.

The first Canadian instrument to track daily weather on another planet, the lidar will determine the position, structure and optical properties of clouds, fog and dust in Mars' lower atmosphere.

“To be part of a Canadian mission on another planet, I can’t even put that into words,” says Dr. Cameron Dickinson of Dalhousie University who helped design the LIDAR for Mars. “It’s a first, so there’s extra pressure."

“Information gathered by our instrumentation on the formation and movement of clouds, fogs, and dust plumes will add valuable new insights into the climate of Mars and the planet’s potential for supporting life,” said Canadian lead scientist on the project, Jim Whiteway, associate professor of space engineering at York University.

On the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, the first half of the fairing is installed around the Phoenix spacecraft. (Photo by George Shelton courtesy NASA)
An even bigger hurdle will arise next May when Phoenix’s solar-powered lander descends on a previously untouched Martian polar region.

If the landing succeeds, Canadian scientists will travel to Tucson, where they will use an array of satellites to remotely operate the LIDAR. The Phoenix Mars lander is also equipped with a robotic arm to dig through Martian soil and ice in the arctic region, and onboard scientific instruments will analyze the samples.

The Phoenix Mars Mission is the first of NASA's competitively proposed and selected Mars Scout missions, supplementing the agency's core Mars Exploration Program, whose theme is "follow the water."

The University of Arizona was selected to lead the mission in August 2003 and is the first public university to lead a Mars exploration mission.

Phoenix uses the main body of a lander originally made for a 2001 mission that was cancelled before launch.

"During the past year we have run Phoenix through a rigorous testing regimen," said Ed Sedivy, Phoenix spacecraft program manager for Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, which built the spacecraft.

"The testing approach runs the spacecraft and integrated instruments through actual mission sequences, allowing us to assess the entire system through the life of the mission while here on Earth," said Sedivy.

Samples of soil and ice collected by the lander's robotic arm will be analyzed by instruments mounted on the deck.

One key instrument will check for water and compounds containing carbon by heating soil samples in tiny ovens and examining the vapors that are given off.

Another will test soil samples by adding water and analyzing the dissolution products.

Cameras and microscopes will provide information on scales spanning 10 powers of 10, from features that could fit by the hundreds into a period at the end of a sentence to an aerial view taken during descent. A weather station will provide information about atmospheric processes in the arctic region.

Other international contributors include the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland, the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and the Finnish Meteorological Institute.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.