CAPE CANAVERAL – NASA's next Mars spacecraft arrivedthis month at Kennedy Space Center,where the lander will be readied for a late-summerlaunch on a mission to search for signs of past or present microbial life inthe Martian arctic.
Riding atop a United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket, the Phoenix spacecraft isscheduled to blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 5:35 a.m. Aug.3.
The liftoff will propel the top-shaped craft on a nine-monthjourney to Mars, a planet that scientists think was once warmer, wetter andperhaps more hospitable to primitive life.
The delivery to KSC marked the start of a three-monthcampaign to perform final checkouts of spacecraft systems and scientificinstruments.
"This is a critical milestone for our mission,"Peter Smith, principal investigator from the Universityof Arizona in Tucson, said in a statement. It caps the endof spacecraft assembly and factory testing and "shows our instruments arecapable of meeting the high-level requirements of the mission," he said.
Built by Lockheed Martin in Denver,the spacecraft is dubbed Phoenixbecause it revives the scientific objectives of two NASA spacecraft that werelost en route to Mars in 1999 -- the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars PolarLander.
Due to arrive on the northern arctic plains of the planetnext May, the spacecraft will use a robotic arm to dig through protective topsoil and scoop up water-ice believed to be within an arm's length of thesurface.
Soil samples then will be returned to a landerplatform for scientific analyses. The craft is equipped with a suite ofsophisticated instruments that will examine the ice-rich soil for organicmaterial or other evidence that microbial life might have arisen on Mars ormight still exist on the red planet.
The spacecraft arrived at KSC after a cross-country tripfrom its manufacturing plant in Denver.It was transported to a payload processing facility in the KSC Industrial Area,where it was uncrated and readied for extensive tests of its systems andscience instruments.
NASA contractor United Launch Alliance will begin buildingup a Delta 2 rocket at Launch Complex 17A in the third week of June.
The rocket's first stage will be hoisted and then nine strap-onsolid rocket boosters will be raised and attached to it. The second stage willbe added in early July followed by the spacecraft about three weeks later. Therocket's payload fairing -- the protective nosecone that will surround the lander -- will be installed a week before liftoff.
The lander's arrival at the launchsite buoyed the spirits of program managers and project scientists.
"We're excited to be going back to Mars," said Ed Sedivy, program manager with spacecraft manufacturerLockheed Martin.
"The arctic plains are the right place for the nextstep in Mars exploration, and this is the right time to go there," saidproject scientist Leslie Tamppari of NASA's JetPropulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We expect to touch the Martianfor the first time -- a real leap in NASA's follow-the-water strategy."
The mission is a joint endeavor of the U.S., Canada,Denmark, Switzerland, Germanyand Finland.
- Images: Visualizations of Mars
- Phoenix Lander Readied For Mars Exploration
- Phoenix Mars Lander: Getting Down and Dirty On the Red Planet
- Phoenix Mars Lander: Strong Arming The Red Planet
- All About Mars
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