Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Landing on Mars was a 50-50 chance

By Carol Gee

(NASA image -- Mars "Sol Zero")

The Phoenix mission's planners thought it was going to be that tough and so did I. All of us who are long time "space junkies" sat through another nail-biter as the robotic effort played out millions of miles away on the polar ice cap of the planet Mars. "NASA's Phoenix Spacecraft Lands at Martian Arctic Site" was NASA's understated news release title. To quote from the story about how difficult the challenge was expected to be:

Among those in the JPL control room was NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who noted this was the first successful Mars landing without airbags since Viking 2 in 1976.

"For the first time in 32 years, and only the third time in history, a JPL team has carried out a soft landing on Mars," Griffin said. "I couldn't be happier to be here to witness this incredible achievement."

. . . Phoenix uses hardware from a spacecraft built for a 2001 launch that was canceled in response to the loss of a similar Mars spacecraft during a 1999 landing attempt. Researchers who proposed the Phoenix mission in 2002 saw the unused spacecraft as a resource for pursuing a new science opportunity. Earlier in 2002, Mars Odyssey discovered that plentiful water ice lies just beneath the surface throughout much of high-latitude Mars. NASA chose the Phoenix proposal over 24 other proposals to become the first endeavor in the Mars Scout program of competitively selected missions.

Space junkie bloggers are having fun with the news. "Heaving Mars," was the clever post title by DarkSyde at DailyKos; it refers to frost heaving. A Texas Kaos post, "Phoenix has landed on Mars," has some good video links by "boadicea," a proud grad of the University of Arizona. Robert Roy Britt at Live Science blogs on Space and Astronomy worries that talk of life on Mars will start up again.

This mission is scheduled to be active for about three months. It is a study in organizational cooperation between NASA's launching the lander, Lockheed Martin developing the spacecraft, and the contributing academic community. Peter Smith of the University of Arizona is the principal investigator for the Phoenix Mars Mission, the first winner of NASA's Scout Program competition among 20+ proposals. Washington University in St. Louis is also deeply involved in this Mars weather study.

NASA's latest report says that communication has successfully been reestablished between Mars and Earth, after period of being on standby for some unknown reason. It is through this complicated communication that we have the privilege of seeing the imagery from the Phoenix mission that is so spectacular!

Hungry for more pics? Tariq Malik at, reports on "The Top 10 Martian Landings of All Time," culminating with kudos to Mars rovers, "Spirit" and "Opportunity." To quote:

Reaching Mars is a hard and unforgiving endeavor, with little room for error. More than two-thirds of the 36 missions launched toward Mars have been lost due to failed components, rocket glitches or grievous errors that sent probes crashing into the martian surface or missing the planet altogether.


NASA May 27 News Items from FLORIDA SPACErePORT. This post includes good summaries of:

  • the comparison of what Iraq war spending could have purchased for the space program;
  • the space program as a progressive cause for the Netroots Nation;
  • plans by Russia and Europe to build new manned spacecraft;
  • Senator Nelson on Presidential candidates and space policy; and
  • the latest news about Soyuz.

(Cross-posted at South by Southwest.)

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