An artist’ sketch of the Phoenix Mars Lander landing on Mars.
The Martians must be shaking in their heavy-duty boots by now now and planning ways to resist invaders from Earth. Oh well, there goes one sci-fi’s overactive imagination again…
But, yes, it’s true that a US space probe is now zooming across space. Destination: The Red Planet. The Phoenix Mars Lander will land and dig through Martian soil in a search for signs of life in a freezing region of the planet.
Powered by solar panels, Phoenix is scheduled to land on Mars on May 25, 2008, after traveling 680 million kilometers through space (hmm, not your ideal picnic site, for now).
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) hopes to land the probe on flat ground with few or no rocks at a Martian latitude equivalent to northern Alaska on Earth.
During its three-month mission, the Lander will pierce through soil in the planet’s arctic region amid freezing temperatures ranging from minus 73 degrees Celsius to minus 33 C.
The Lander is equipped with a 2.35-meter robotic arm that will enter vertically into the soil to break the icy crust believed to lie within a few inches of the surface.
The arm will lift samples onto the Lander’s deck and use instruments to check for water and carbon-based chemicals, considered essential building blocks for life, and analyze the soil chemistry to look for clues of past or present life.
“Our instruments are specially designed to find evidence for periodic melting of the ice and to assess whether this large region represents a habitable environment for Martian microbes,” said Phoenix Principal Investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson.
Phoenix also has a weather station that will measure water and dust content in the atmosphere.
Many scientists see signs of ancient rivers and oceans on the arid and sterile surface of Mars, and believe the planet may once have harbored some forms of life.
In 2002 the NASA probe Mars Odyssey detected huge quantities of hydrogen on the Martian surface, a likely sign there could be ice at a depth of less than one meter.
NASA’s roving robots Spirit and Opportunity have also found signs of past water while rolling across the Martian landscape since 2004.
Unlike the rovers, the $420-million Phoenix Lander will stay put in one location during its mission. It will also have a softer arrival on Mars than the rovers, which made a bouncy landing inside huge air bags.
As with previous missions, Phoenix will deploy a heat shield to slow its high-speed entry into the Martian atmosphere. It will then open a supersonic parachute that will cut its speed to about 217 kilometers per hour.
The Lander then separates from the parachute and fires pulsed descent rocket engines to slow the craft to about nine kilometers per hour before landing on its three legs.
Fifteen minutes after landing, the probe’s solar panels will deploy and power up its instruments.
But landing on Mars has been a 50-50 proposition for past missions to the Red Planet: Half of the 14 missions sent by Russian, Japanese, American and European space agencies since 1988 have failed.
Let’s cross our fingers, the Martians would not sabotage our latest mission.