Mars landing ‘perfect’; images elate scientists
UA contingent takes control from NASA
By Aaron Mackey
ARIZONA DAILY STAR
With a flawless landing under its belt, the UA-led Phoenix Mars lander unfurled its solar wings Sunday evening and captured unprecedented images of the planet’s fractured polar tundra — signs experts say point to a subsurface filled with ice.
Capping off what University of Arizona scientists and engineers called a historic day for the UA, mission planners in Tucson took control of the Phoenix Mars Mission a few hours after the spacecraft touched down.
The UA team planned to work overnight to decide what tasks to have the lander do today, as it prepares to begin digging beneath the soil to analyze ice and determine if Mars ever had a climate suitable for life.
The lander is sitting “in an almost perfect position” at the planet’s northern pole, said Peter Smith, UA’s lead investigator on the mission, speaking from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
“I was right to be optimistic,” said Smith, who had correctly predicted that the final descent — dubbed “Seven Minutes of Terror” — would turn into “Seven Minutes of Joy.”
“This team performed perfectly. They couldn’t have done a better job,” Smith said.
Mission planners expressed pride and awe after learning that Phoenix perfected a complex, 422-million-mile journey that went better than even the most optimistic projections.
“We never expected that it would be this perfect,” said David Spencer, NASA’s deputy project manager for the mission. “We didn’t have any hiccups.”
The landing is a relief for NASA since Mars has a reputation of swallowing spacecraft. More than half of all nations’ attempts to land on Mars have failed.
In Tucson, Smith’s wife joined a group of celebrants who popped champagne corks in the UA’s Science Operations Center with hundreds of other onlookers. Nearby, a thousand people gathered on the UA Mall to celebrate the landing.
UA is the first public university to run day-to-day operations of a NASA mission. University engineers working on the lander’s camera went to work almost immediately after getting word that Phoenix touched down safely.
Crews from the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena transferred control over to the Tucson crew around 6:30 p.m. local time.
After the lander’s main camera took pictures of its solar panels and landing legs to make sure everything was working, it turned toward the horizon and captured surface views of Mars unlike anything researchers have seen before, said Chris Shinohara, the Science Operations Center manager.
The images show a surface void of large rocks and riddled with shaped patterns.
Although Phoenix has had a great deal of success, including an entry that saw it launch a parachute, free fall and, finally, ignite small jets to land softly, critical steps remain before the lander can be deemed fully operational.
In the coming days, engineers will test all instruments on the lander to make sure they weren’t damaged during the 10-month journey and are up to the task of exploring Mars for the next three months, Shinohara said.
Early data from Phoenix showed that the lander was charging its batteries and had turned on its heater, a vital aspect of the mission, as the planet has an average temperature of minus-81 degrees Fahrenheit.
Testing on the lander’s robotic arm will be critical, as the mechanism is the keystone of the mission, allowing researchers to dig down into Mars’ soil, Spencer said.
Mission planners expect the extensive testing to last several days. Once everything checks out, crews will begin looking around the lander and try to find a good place to dig.
In Tucson, engineers in charge of a full-scale mockup of Phoenix began working to put the test lander into the exact same circumstances that Phoenix faces.
As more images of the lander’s surroundings are sent back, UA students and engineers will strive to create a near-facsimile of the lander, including placing the model on a slight tilt and arranging small rocks around it, Smith said.
Evan McKelvy, a UA student who works with the model, said he couldn’t breathe during the final moments of the lander’s descent, but now he’s ready to get to work.
“Now that we’ve actually landed, we have to go get good science,” he said.
It was the landing that had mission planners most nervous, though it turned out Phoenix encountered no problems during its descent.
Radio communication with the lander remained constant throughout the landing, with nearly all of the stages occurring at roughly the same time mission planners had expected.
“This was just perfect,” Smith said of the landing. “It didn’t seem real.”
For UA’s Pat Woida, one of the mission’s lead engineers, the exhilaration is only beginning.
“She’s talking to us, and she looks great,” a thrilled Woida said, referring to the lander. “I will take whatever Mars throws at me now.”
On StarNet: Find more Phoenix Mars Mission coverage including photo galleries and a video from the Science Operations Center in Tucson at azstarnet.com/science.
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MISSION AT A GLANCE
Departed Earth: 2:26 a.m. Tucson time Aug. 4 from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Arrived on Mars: 4:38 p.m. Tucson time Sunday.
Purpose: To search for evidence of water and conditions that support life in the Martian arctic. If there are any life forms, scientists don’t believe they are anything more than single-cell organisms. But the detection of water could lead to more information about past life on Mars, as well as the future possibility of humans going there.
Why it is called Phoenix: The name symbolizes its “rising from the ashes” of two failed attempts to explore Mars. It uses instruments from the Mars Polar Lander, which failed to return data from Mars’ antarctic region in 1999; and the Mars Surveyor 2001 Lander, which was canceled.
Outside of the Earth-Moon system, Mars is the most hospitable body in the solar system for humans and is currently the only real candidate for future human exploration and colonization.
Mercury is too close to the sun and has almost no atmosphere. Venus is far too hot and the surface pressures are extreme, and the gas giants — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune — do not provide a surface on which to land.
Some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn are interesting targets in the search for life elsewhere in the solar system, but they are much farther away and more inhospitable than Mars.
Contact reporter Aaron Mackey at 618-1924 or email@example.com.