NASA: Phoenix Spacecraft in Good Health After Mars Landing
PASADENA, Calif. – NASA?s Phoenix Mars Lander is in fine health after its unprecedented landing in the Martian arctic Sunday as mission scientists turn their attention to the craft?s main goal: to explore the layers of water ice under the frozen soil.
Phoenix set down on the flat, cracked terrain of Mars? northern polar region after a harrowing, but successful, plunge through the planet?s atmosphere.
?I know it looks like a parking lot, but it?s a safe place to land,? said Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, where the mission will be controlled for the majority of its primary 90-day run. ?This is a scientist?s dream right here on this landing site.?
Mission scientists received the probe?s first call home here at NASA?s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at about 7:53 p.m. EDT (2353 GMT) on Sunday, though it takes signals about 15 minutes to traverse the 171 million miles (275 million km) between Mars and back on Earth.
Phoenix?s $420 million mission is designed to test the Martian soil and ice for signs that the water was once liquid to see if it could have created a habitable zone for microbial life at some point in the past. The instruments include a robotic arm that will scoop up dust and ice, as well as a wet chemistry lab and tiny ovens that will analyze the soil to see what compounds might be in it.
But before Phoenix can start digging, mission scientists much make sure everything on the craft is functioning properly. So far, everything looks good, and over the next few days, the craft will be thoroughly checked out and its scoop-tipped robotic arm extended for the first time.
"Phoenix is an amazing machine and it was built and flown by an amazing team. Through the entire entry, descent and landing phase, it performed flawlessly," said Ed Sedivy, Phoenix program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company. "I'm happy to report it's in great shape."
The lander touched down at the edge of its elliptical target area, drifting slightly most likely because its parachute deployed 6.5 seconds late. Engineers hope to better understand the delay after reviewing more data from the spacecraft.
But the spacecraft?s success made it the first powered landing on Mars in 32 years, when the two massive Viking probes set down in 1976. NASA?s most recent probes to land, the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, used airbags to cushion their own bouncy landings in 2004.
"Today you had a chance to watch a team that had something very difficult to do and they made it look easy,? said NASA chief Mike Griffin after the landing success.
Phoenix sent its first images back shortly after landing, bouncing them off NASA?s Mars Odyssey orbiter to relay them to eager scientists on Earth. The first image the lander took was of its solar arrays, so that mission engineers could make sure they had deployed properly, since they are the craft?s source of energy during its three-month mission.
The spacecraft also photographed one of its footpads, to make sure it was flat on the ground, which it was. Four images of the landing site were also taken and assembled into a mosaic, showing some of the landscape surrounding the lander. These images mark the first time that the Martian arctic has been photographed from the surface, showed a flat surface with just a few pebbles strewn about, which is perfect for Phoenix?s mission.
?Underneath this surface, I guarantee you, there?s ice,? Smith said. ?There?s ice under this surface.?
The cracked, polygonal shapes spotted by NASA?s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) currently circling the planet were seen out to the horizon in Phoenix?s first views.
?This is probably the cutest polygon that I have ever seen,? an excited Smith said of one of the features.
But the images are just a fraction of the terrain surrounding Phoenix, and the camera has not yet imaged the soil closest to the lander, ?so we have not yet seen what we?re going to be digging into,? Smith said. The rest of the terrain will be filled in by the lander?s stereo camera over the next few days.
Now that the solar arrays are known to be working and the craft has power, control of Phoenix?s operations has shifted over the University of Arizona for the duration of the mission.
Subsequent images from the spacecraft will show other systems, including the bio-barrier protecting the robotic arm and the meteorological mast. Once all the systems have been checked out and are known to be working properly, Phoenix will turn its attention to the soil and the layers of water ice underneath it.
"Only five of our planet's 11 previous attempts to land on the red planet have succeeded,? said Ed Weiler, NASA associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at the agency?s Washington, D.C. headquarters. ?In exploring the universe, we accept some risk in exchange for the potential of great scientific rewards.?
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