Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Safely on Mars!

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter images Mars Phoenix dangling from its parachute
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/U. of Arizona

On Sunday evening, the Phoenix Mars Lander safely landed in the Martian Arctic to begin a three-month search for water on Mars. It was a picture-perfect landing, as evidenced by the picture above. What you see is the Phoenix lander dangling from its parachute, and you can even see the parachute lines! This picture was taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a satellite snapping pictures of Mars. It was a technically-challenging photo, and the fact that it worked shows how very careful diligence can bring you excellent results. Future Mars missions can learn a lot from the care and time the Phoenix team put into their landing.

Phoenix was sent to the Martian Arctic to look for water ice. On Earth, wherever there is water, there is life. And we know there is water ice at Mars's north and south poles. Phoenix will not be able to search for life itself (unless a Martian Yeti or Rabbit happens by). Instead, Phoenix is going to look for water, study the chemistry of the soil, and allow scientists to estimate how suitable a habitat the Martian poles might be. If it seems like a possible habitat, future missions geared to look for microbes may look at Mars's poles. If it is not a great habitat, the search will go elsewhere.

To me, it is neat to see the pictures of the Martian Arctic. NASA's first four probes to land on Mars all saw similar terrain (click on a link to compare the views); Viking 1, Viking 2, Mars Pathfinder, and the Spirit rover all showed us very rocky and dusty areas. It wasn't until the first pictures from the Opportunity rover that we saw a different face of Mars -- a flat, broad, sandy plain devoid of the jagged rocks previously seen. And now Phoenix has seen yet another face of Mars. And there is much of Mars we have yet to see -- massive volcanoes with extensive lava flows, ice caps, and giant chasms.

If we were Martians studying the Earth, then a roughly equivalent exploration scheme is that Viking, Pathfinder, and Spirit all landed in different deserts, Opportunity landed in the Great Plains, and now Phoenix lands in Siberian tundra. There'd be a lot more of Earth to see!

Congratulations to the Mars Phoenix team. Now the real work begins -- about three months of work time before the long Martian arctic summer ends, and the cold and dark of Martian fall and winter set in.

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