Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Phoenix Landing on Mars

"It is good to renew one’s wonder, said the philosopher. "Space travel has again made children of us all."—Ray Bradbury (from The Martian Chronicles)

“The Phoenix spacecraft successfully landed in the north arctic plains of Mars today,” Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Team Leader, announced to my friend Danny Bloom. “This is the first landing in 32 years -- since the Viking spacecraft made landfall on Mars in 1976 -- that we have soft-landed a craft on Mars using retrorockets.”

The lander successfully parachuted and touched down on the surface of Mars Sunday, despite some fears about the spacecraft's ability to penetrate the atmosphere and remain upright after landing. Had the Phoenix tipped over, it would not have been able to dig into Martian soil, and it would have been impossible for the craft to complete its mission, reported K.C. Jones of InformationWeek .

"I'm floored. I'm absolutely floored," said Phoenix Project Manager Barry Goldstein of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in Pasadena, Calif. Mars Society executive director Chris Carberry said that one of the greatest challenges in modern engineering is to land a craft safely on another planet. "The data collected from this mission could have a tremendous impact on planning for future human missions," he said.

“From the pictures returned, the spacecraft is in a completely upright position, the solar arrays are perfectly deployed, and the surroundings show no large rocks or boulders but a rather hummocky surface, perhaps created by the action of sub-surface ice,” said Porko. “This spacecraft is not meant to rove but to dig and analyze. So, now begins three months of gradual digging with the spacecraft's robotic arm and scoop until eventually it reaches the ice layer beneath the surface. The goal [is] to determine if the icy sub-surface environment is rich in organics and suitable for living organisms, and perhaps if there are any organisms living there today. It will be three months of great anticipation.”

“Our long-term goals are to determine whether life ever arose on Mars, to examine climate, characterise geology and prepare for human exploration,” said Peter Smith, Phoenix Project Lead Investigator. “Mars is a cold desert planet with no liquid water on its surface. However, discoveries made by the Mars Odyssey Orbiter in 2002 showed large amounts of subsurface water ice. The Phoenix Lander targets this region.”

“Phoenix will probe the history of liquid water that may have existed in the arctic as recently as 100,000 years ago,” added Smith. “Evidence from other missions suggest that water once flowed in canyons. It is important because all known life forms require it to survive. Chemical experiments will assess the soil's composition of life-giving elements such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and hydrogen. Certain bacterial spores lie dormant in cold, dry and airless conditions for millions of years and become activated in favourable conditions. Such dormant microbial colonies may exist in the Martian arctic.”

“Images sent back from the Red Planet by NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander after its picture-perfect Sunday touchdown provide the first close-up views of a barren landscape honeycombed with cracks that may represent the effects of seasonal freezing and thawing of subsurface ice,” reported J.R. Minkel of Scientific American Online.

The robotic arm camera on board the Phoenix Mars lander features the first motor-adjustable focusing system to be deployed on an inter-planetary spacecraft, Nasa revealed (Chris Cheesman of Amateur Photographer). Scientists are now analyzing photographs captured by the spacecraft, the first taken since it touched down on 25 May. Phoenix's robotic arm camera aims to provide close-up color images of Martian soil and ice samples that could establish whether the planet could support life. The camera is positioned just above the 'scoop' that aims to collect samples dug by the robotic arm, says Cheesman. “The camera has a double Gauss lens system, a design commonly used in 35mm cameras,” explains the space agency. “Images are recorded by a charge-coupled device (CCD) similar to those in consumer digital cameras. The instrument includes sets of red, green and blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs) for illuminating the target area.” Nasa claims that the camera can focus down to 11mm and record images at a resolution of '23 microns per pixel' at the closest focusing distance - allowing the camera to show details 'much finer than the width of a human hair'. The camera is similar to one used on the failed Mars Polar Lander spacecraft but with a revamped illumination system.

The Phoenix also carries a Canadian weather station. The $37 million station is no larger than a shoebox and wrapped in a thermal blanket bearing a tiny Maple Leaf flag. The station will help in the search for life-giving water. It’s the first Canadian science instrument to land on the surface of an alien world, said Alicia Chang, of the Associated Press. A Canadian scientific team hopes to spend 90 days studying data sent back from Mars, including daily measurements of temperature, atmospheric pressure, cloud height, humidity and wind speeds. A specially developed laser called a lidar will be used to track clouds around the landing area. Steve MacLean, chief astronaut for the Canadian Space Agency, told the Canadian Press that Canada got involved because of its expertise operating in frigid northern environments.
Yup, I can vouch for that…

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


dan said...

I watched the landing live on CNN the day it happened, here in Taiwan, I think it was morning here. I remember sunshine coming through the bedroom window....

30 years ago and now now. Still boggles the mind. ''HOW do they do it?'' asks this landlubber....

sfgirl said...

Yeah! HAR! And it's as exciting as the first time, isn't it?

I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid (still do...). When I played dolls with my big sister it wasn't "Ken and Barbie go to the beach"... It was a cast of thousands (humans and aliens) exploring in outer space!

To glimpse our vast universe from out there or experience another planet would be transporting in the least... certainly magical... Well, perhaps in another life-time... :)

Jean-Luc Picard said...

This really caught my eye when the Phoenix landed. The BBC story online I had bookmarked on delicious, Stumbleupon & Facebook.

sfgirl said...

Wonderful, isn't it. It takes me back to when we first landed on the moon.... so exciting!

Rick LeBlanc said...

Y'know, when I was a kid, I was sure that I would have at least visited the moon by now. There'd be colonies on both moon and Mars and we would have robotic missions to other planets that would have supplied resources to Earth or L5 colonies. Somewhere along the way, we strayed from our adventurous path and let the bureaucrats pinch the pennies until there's a mere shadow of what may have been. We might have an independent space program instead of piggy-backing onto the US, if Diefenbacher hadn't fried the Avro Arrow. I still think he should hang for that. Most of the aeronautic folks ended up at NASA.

sfgirl said...

Oh dear, Rick.... I so agree (well, not about the hanging so much... but about the sad way the whole process has gone...) It's like we all "grew up" and let people convince us that, well, that kind of stuff is "irresponsible", it's for kids, for dreamers... They killed a dream. It's through dreams that we live and ironically that we learn and grow and thrive...

sfgirl said...

p.s. You know, I had no idea Canada even HAD a Canadian Space Agency, never mind what they DID there, until I wrote this article...
The mandate of the Canadian Space Agency is:

To promote the peaceful use and development of space, to advance the knowledge of space through science and to ensure that space science and technology provide social and economic benefits for Canadians.
If you want to know more about what they do or are about, here is their website:

CrazyKinux said...

I'm always amazed at the photographs that we get back during these missions. When I think that they were taken on a different world I get goose bumps!

I look forward (crosses his fingers and toes) when humankind sets a foot on Mars and starts building permanent Moon bases.

Until then, I'll enjoy my goose bumps!

sfgirl said...

Me too! I love those goosebumps! Perhaps our children will have the option of living and working there...

kathleenmaher said...

Ordinarily, I fall into the camp of space-travel cynics: too many problems on this planet, which after all (a common space-cynic refrain), is already spinning in space.
But this story and the pictures, which I didn't see on tv, because my husband won't have one in the apt., opened my eyes. Thanks.

blackburn1 said...

Great post for a great event.

With all the grim reality of current events, this is one piece of news that is all good, and truly awe-inspiring.

Cheers to those who made it happen.

sfgirl said...

Yeah! I so agree, Blackburn and Kathleen... (clever choice of words too, Kathleen... "already spinning in space"... hehe). It is nice to feel optimism and witness a program is essentially based in optimism.

Be sure to catch my Friday Feature post, which features more on space travel... both pros and cons... and again to do with who and what we are...

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