Fools! They refuse to believe life exists in meteorites. I showed them at the astrophysics conference what I just showed you. But no! Even with a microscope they are blind!
– The Andromeda Strain
It’s going to be a nice day on Mars when NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander makes its planned touchdown in the northern plains of the red planet on Sunday. The region may have been habitable.
After a nine-month, 422-million-mile trip from Earth that began last August, NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander will catch up to the red planet Sunday to begin a three-month science mission. Its mission is series of soil analysis projects that involve digging lightly into the Mars surface to study the history of water, ice and life potential in the planet’s soil.
NASA coverage begins 3:30 p.m. (Pacific) Sunday and will be streamed on Nasa TV. Touchdown is scheduled for 4:38 p.m. (PDT). NASA coverage includes podcasts and blogs, Facebook and Twitter. NASA is expecting some 500,000 to watch its live coverage on the web.
UPDATE SUNDAY NIGHT: Wow! Made it! The Lander “talks” at twitter.com/MarsPhoenix.
But first it has to land. Only five of 13 attempts to land on Mars have succeeded. Like NASA’s twin Viking landers in 1976, Phoenix will use descent thrusters in the final seconds down to the surface and will set down onto three legs.
More than eight years ago, in December 1999, NASA’s Mars Polar Lander project came to a disastrous end when the craft’s descent engines shut down early as it prepared to land on the Martian surface.
The HiRISE camera, on board Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, photographed possible landing sites. The Mars Phoenix Lander was launched on 4 August 2007 from Cape Canaveral. The Mars trip has taken 10 months, with landing on Mars on 25 May of 2008.
It is designed to study the surface and near-surface environment, around 70 degrees North. The primary science objectives are to study the history of water, search for evidence of a Habitable Zone, and assess the biological potential of the ice-soil boundary for at least 90 sols. The spacecraft is not mobile, it is supported on three landing legs.
The Phoenix Mission inherits a spacecraft partially built for the Mars Surveyor Program 2001 and lessons learned from the Mars Polar Lander. NASA canceled the follow-on Mars Surveyor 2001, which was then stored in a Class 100,000 clean high-bay facility at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, in Littleton, Colorado. That craft was used to create Phoenix, which lands this weekend.
TOUCHDOWN is scheduled for 4:53 PM (EST), 7:53 PM (PST) this Sunday. The science experiments and a robotic arm are mounted on the base. The lander will undertake a microscopic examination of the red sand beneath its feet shortly after the lander settles onto Mars’ frigid, northern plains on May 25.
As Phoenix’s robotic arm pulls soil off the landscape, it deposits samples into water-filled chambers for analysis.
The Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA) instrument may find evidence that liquid water once existed. EE Times examines the wet-chemistry lab (WCL) on the lander. An array of sensors can determine a wide variety of inorganic and electrochemical compounds. The Thermal Evolved Gas Analyzer measures temperature and gas profiles to identify minerals. A mass spectrometer (wikipedia) is the analysis tool of choice for organics.
According to John Marshall, a planetary geologist with the Carl Sagan Center at the SETI Institute, “this very detailed examination of the sand grains could supply a vital clue as to whether Mars was ever conducive to life – or if microscopic life might still have a foothold there.”
Communication will be primarily through a UHF relay on the Mars 2001 Odyssey orbiter, but the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Express can also be used as relays. Phoenix also has a steerable medium gain X-band antenna to provide communications directly with Earth.
Phoenix uses an X-band (8 gigahertz) radio throughout the cruise phase. For the mission, a UHF radio (pdf) is used, relayed through Mars orbiters during the entry, descent and landing phase and while operating on the surface of Mars. A UHF antenna on the lander deck will handle outgoing and incoming communications.
The Telecom Subsystem on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter consists of a very large (3 meter) antenna, which relays data to Earth via X-band frequencies at 8 GHz, and a Ka-band radio at 32 GHz for higher data rates. Maximum transmission speed from Mars is projected to be as high as 6 Mbit/s. The orbiter relay carries two 100-watt X-band amplifiers.
The Mars Phoenix Lander and the orbiting relay communicate with Earth using NASA’s Deep Space Network. The spacecraft’s UHF signal may also be received directly at Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. Data transmission is most difficult during the critical sequence of entry.
Phoenix relays communication via Mars orbiters using the same international standard used by the Mars Express and the Mars rovers, called the Proximity-1 protocol. It was developed by the international Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems, an international partnership for standardizing techniques for handling space data. CCSDS provides a forum for discussion of common problems of space data systems. Some 346 missions utilize the protocol.
The lander is expected to touch down on Mars at 7:38 p.m. EDT Sunday. Once the Phoenix lands, NASA won’t know if the mission was successful until 15 minutes and 20 seconds later. The radio signals will travel approximately 171 million miles to reach Earth.
Extremophiles have been found under Antarctic ice, around superhot volcanic vents, eating rock beneath the sea floor, munching on hydrogen and belching methane inside Earth’s crust, and even in the waste from nuclear reactors says Space.com.
Portland State University’s Sherry Cady an Astrobiologist in Portland, edits the more academic Astrobiology Journal. Join her on a trip to capture Extremophiles in Kamchatka (slide show). She explains how microbes leave their mark (slide show). The UW’s Astrobiology Lab is always cooking up something interesting with John Baross at the helm.
Exobiology is where you find it. Stardust was the first sample return mission to collect cosmic dust. The Genesis sample canister crashed in Utah in 2004. Deep Impact collided with deep-space comet Tempel 1 and excavated material from the nucleus of the comet on July 4th, 2005. Astrobiology may be re-written this week.
The Mars Exobiology strategy is being executed with the help of Planetary Protection Officers like Dr. Cassie Conley who must prevent contamination between Earth and Mars. It’s not immediately clear who resolves jurisdictional disputes between Planetary and Solar System Protection Officers or who calls the shots for extraterrestrial contact.
A primary goal of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, planned for launch in 2009, is to determine whether life ever arose on Mars while the follow-on Astrobiology Science Laboratory will be dedicated to astrobiology research on Mars.
ExoMars will include a highly mobile rover with a drill capable of extracting soil samples two meters below the Mars surface.
Mars Sample Return would seal potential alien life forms in a capsule and return it to Earth. The International Committee Against Mars Sample Return says it’s too dangerous.
Mission System Manager Joe Guinn (podcast) is responsible for the Phoenix mission’s complicated technical systems. Jeanne Holm, chief knowledge architect for NASA’s JPL, told CIO magazine, “In 2004 there were more than 60 million unique visitors and over 550 million page views and 17.5 billion hits.” They are planning for twice as many this time.
On May 25, NASA’s new locale in Second Life will let you come dressed in virtual space suits, sit in virtual bleachers, and hang out. Entry, descent and landing will be synchronized with NASA television. Check out the spacecraft models and virtual Mars landscape.
George Dyson tells the amazing story of Project Orion (below), a massive, 1957-era nuclear-powered spacecraft that would have taken a crew of 20 to Saturn.
Orion would have worked by dropping thermonuclear bombs out the rear of a vehicle, detonating them 200 feet (60 m) out, and catching the blast with a thick steel or aluminum pusher plate.
Space news resources include; SpaceDaily, Space.com, Space News, SpaceFlightNow, SpaceRef, Florida Today, Arizona Public Media, CBS News, Fox News, CNN, Discovery: Mars Lander, MSNBC, Berkeley Space Physics, Johns Hopkins, Ball Aerospace, NASA Sites, NASA Space Data Center, Deep Space Network, The Mars Climate Orbiter, Mars Polar Lander, Nova: MARS Dead or Alive, Nova: Origins, Nova: Lord of the Ants, SpaceRef Extremophiles, Astrobiology Magazine, Committee on Space Research, Outer Space Treaty, Space Studies Board Annual Report 2007, NASA Astrobiology Institute, SETI, Are We Alone?, Alien Infection, Bring Em Back Alive, JPL, Upcoming Planetary Launches and Events, Blog Runner, TechMeme, Google News, Yahoo Space News, Yahoo Full Coverage and Nasa TV.
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