May 25, 2008
After more than a decade in planning and a 10-month, 423 million-mile flight, NASA's Phoenix lander is operational on the martian surface. Mission controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, received confirmation of a successful landing at 7:53 P.M.
EDT today and erupted with celebration.
Shortly after receiving the signal, Barry Goldstein, Phoenix project manager, told NASA TV, "Absolutely perfect, it went right down the middle."
The lander successfully touched down on Mars' northern polar cap. Phoenix is tilted less than one degree and is believed to be resting on flat terrain. The landing site was changed last year during the discovery of boulders that could have tipped the spacecraft over as it came to rest on the Red Planet.
Brent Shockley, the Information and Configuration Management Engineer for Phoenix at JPL, provided insight in a blog
as events unfolded. He also let the audience now what to expect next. "The next step for Phoenix is surface initialization during which the solar arrays, Surface Stereo Imager, Biobarrier (which has been protecting the robotic arm from contamination since it was sterilized on Earth), and meteorological mast will deploy," explains Shockley.
The craft's onboard laboratory will study the history of water and habitability potential by looking for organic chemicals essential for life in the arctic's ice-rich soils.
Cold, arid Mars lacks standing water. But in the arctic regions, copious ice lies right below the surface. In 2002, NASA's Mars Odyssey Orbiter located large amounts of subsurface water ice in the northern arctic plain.
Phoenix' robotic arm will dig through the protective topsoil layer to the water ice below. Then it will carry a sample of soil and ice to the lander's various onboard scientific instruments for study.
The planned mission period is 92 Earth days. After that, the martian winter will settle over the craft. The waning light will deprive the solar-powered laboratory of electricity to run its instruments. Mission planners expect the lander to end its life covered in frozen carbon dioxide (dry ice). Chances are remote that Phoenix will hum back to life in spring.
The mission takes its name from the mythical phoenix bird that symbolizes rebirth. When the bird dies, it bursts into flames. A new bird then rises from the ashes of the pyre.