May 20, 2008

The Phoenix

If you haven't found out already, the Phoenix spacecraft is scheduled to land this Sunday, May 25, 2008 on Mars. So what exactly is the Phoenix spacecraft and mission?

Basically, the Phoenix spacecraft is a lander, that will land on Mars and, using its onboard instruments, conduct research on the surface of the planet. It will look for environments suitable for microbial life and, in that process, learn more about the history of water on Mars. Since Mars
has no liquid water, Phoenix is landing in the arctic region of Mars. In 2002, the Mars Odyssey Orbiter showed a high amount of subsurface water in the Arctic plains (image at left). The lander will, with its robotic arm dig through the protective top soil layer (image at right), reaching its way into the
water below. After digging,
the lander will then bring in the soil and the water onboard on to the lander platform, where scientific instruments will analyze the samples.

The name Phoenix comes from the fact that the Phoenix program is very similar to the mythological namesake, which is a bird that is reborn from its ashes after it burns and dies. Many of the spacecraft's parts come from pervious projects. For example, the lander that the spacecraft is using has been modified from the Mars Surveyor 2001 lander.

Images from JPL, LPL, NASA.

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