Red Planet Research: With new knowledge
of exactly where water and soil exist on Mars, the Phoenix--scheduled for
launch in 2008--will search for life while also testing out new landing
On May 25th, 2008, the world may finally know if life exists on other planets. Or at least that's the hope of the scientists behind NASA's Phoenix, the first Mars Scout Mission scheduled to launch in August of 2007 (http://rbi.ims.ca/3852-534). Rising out of the design and discovery of previous Mars missions, the Phoenix will travel to the lower latitudes of Mars to analyze the abundant and accessible ice discovered in 2002 by the Gamma Ray Spectrometer. "Water is the building block of life," says Project Manager Barry Goldstein. "On Earth, life is everywhere. Our hope is that we will discover some of the building blocks of life in the ice on Mars." More economical than previous Mars Rover Missions, the Phoenix design utilizes the existing hardware of the Mars Surveyor Program's 2001 lander, a spacecraft updated from the failed mission of the 1998 Mars Polar Lander. Use of titanium legs on the Phoenix should enable a successful interaction between the lander legs and software, the most probable cause of the malfunction in 1998 when leg extension at altitude was mistaken for landing. While previous Rover missions sought to simply gather information about Mars, the Phoenix has more specific science objectives: it will land in an exact, predetermined location to test the discovered water and soil, study the history of the water, and search for habitable areas. Even if the Phoenix does not uncover any organic matter, the mission has other important goals. The Phoenix design plans to re-prove propulsive descent with a successful guided entry, which could result in more precise landing technology than airbags for future missions, and ensure safer landing environments by targeting specific landing points. The Phoenix will also be using seven different instruments to gather, sample, and test Mars' ice and soil. A 2 m long robotic arm will excavate a trench and gather samples, while the Thermal Evolved Gas Analyzer will heat samples taken from eight depths, measuring isotope ratios, humidity, and atmospheric composition. All these tests will help determine if Mars could be a suitable place for humans to live in the future…unless the Phoenix discovers life has existed there already.