It will be a real nail-biter for mission scientists and engineers as the Phoenix spacecraft performs a series of challenging maneuvers right before it lands on Mars. Not the least of those challenges is reducing its speed from something suitable for interplanetary travel down to a nice, slow soft landing. Phoenix will enter the top of the Martian atmosphere at almost 21,000 kilometers per hour (almost 13,000 mph). In seven minutes, the spacecraft must complete a challenging sequence of events to slow to about 8 kilometers per hour (5 mph) before its three legs reach the ground. Confirmation of the landing could come as early as 7:53 p.m. EDT.
You can follow along as the drama unfolds by watching NASA TV either via your cable or satellite service or online. Cable's Science Channel will also offer coverage Sunday evening. Click here for NASA TV. Coverage begins at 7:00 PM on the Science Channel and at 6:00 PM on NASA TV.
Like the Phoenix bird of ancient mythology, the Phoenix Mars Mission is reborn out of fire; this new mission was created from the embers of previous Mars endeavors. Phoenix will use many components of two unsuccessful Mars missions: MPL and MSP '01. Researchers who proposed the Phoenix mission in 2002 saw the unused spacecraft as a resource for pursuing a new science opportunity. Launched August 4, 2007, Phoenix has been coasting towards its encounter with Mars ever since. The trip is nearly complete.
After a successful landing Phoenix, an immobile "lander," will perform a number of scientific observations including the use of a robotic arm to dig through the protective top soil layer. It has two bold objectives: to study the history of water in the Martian arctic and search for evidence of a habitable zone and assess the biological potential of the ice-soil boundary. It is expected to find water ice below the surface and ultimately, bring both soil and water ice to the lander platform for sophisticated analysis.
Mission scientists will operate Phoenix for as long as they can but it won't go on for long! The primary mission is anticipated to last 90 sols (Martian days) -- just over 92 Earth days. Researchers are hoping that the lander could survive into the Martian winter to witness the polar ice developing at the spacecraft's exploration area. The extreme cold and lack of sunlight to run the lander's solar panels will lead to the freezing "death" of Phoenix and the end of the mission. The wealth of data returned to Earth will be a great legacy for the spacecraft and its operators. IF Phoenix lands successfully!
The University of Arizona is honored to be the first public university to lead a mission to Mars.
NASA's Phoenix Website is a good source for multimedia information relating to the Phoenix Mission.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Calech/University of Arizona