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Phoenix Mars Lander Project Progressing Towards August 2007 Launch

Image credit: NASA/UA/JPL
by Staff Writers
Tucson AZ (SPX) Apr 27, 2006
The next spacecraft scheduled for a mission to the red planet, the Phoenix Mars Lander, is beginning a new phase of development in preparation for its launch in August 2007, project officials said Wednesday.

The Phoenix has entered its assembly, test and launch operations phase, in which technicians are adding the flight computer, power systems and science instruments to the main structure of the spacecraft.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, the University of Arizona and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., are collaborating on the lander.

"All the subsystems and instruments from a wide range of suppliers are tested separately, but now we are beginning the vital stage of assembling them together and testing how they will function with each other," said JPL's Barry Goldstein, the Phoenix project manager.

The spacecraft will be the first to land near the Martian north polar ice cap to analyze scooped-up samples of icy soil.

"We know there is plenty of water frozen into the surface layer of Mars at high latitudes," said Peter Smith of UA, the mission's principal investigator. "We've designed Phoenix to tell us more about this region as a possible habitat for life."

Phoenix also is the first mission of NASA's Mars Scout program, which consists of competitively proposed, relatively low-cost missions to Mars. The program is continuing to solicit proposals for another mission in 2011.

The Phoenix proposal, selected in 2003, saves expense by using a lander structure, subsystem components and protective aeroshell originally built for a 2001 lander mission that was canceled while in development. Phoenix's budget, including launch, is $386 million.

The spacecraft will land using descent thrusters just prior to touchdown, rather than airbags like those used by the current Mars Exploration Rovers.

As Phoenix parachutes through Mars' lower atmosphere in May 2008, its descent camera will capture images to provide a geological context about the landing site.

Phoenix's robotic arm will be about 2 meters (7 feet) long, jointed at the elbow and wrist, and equipped with a camera and scoop. It will dig as deep as about 50 centimeters (20 inches) and deliver samples to instruments on the spacecraft deck that will analyze physical and chemical properties of the ices and other materials.

The lander's stereo color camera will examine the landing site's terrain and provide positioning information for the arm. The Canadian Space Agency is providing a suite of weather instruments for the mission.

"The propulsion system and the wiring harness have been added to the vehicle," said Ed Sedivy, Phoenix program manager for Lockheed Martin.

"We will be loading flight software onto the flight computer in the next few days. The flight software is much more mature than typical for a planetary program at this stage. As soon as the flight computer is mated up, we can apply external power to the vehicle."

Navigation components, such as star trackers, and communication subsystems will become part of the spacecraft in coming weeks, followed by science instruments this summer.

When this stage of assembly is completed, Phoenix will be shipped to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida in May 2007 for final preparations leading up to launch. Before that, testing in Colorado will subject the spacecraft to expected operational environments, including thermal and vacuum tests simulating the 10-month trip to Mars and conditions on Mars' surface.

Meanwhile, mission scientists are preparing a test facility in Tucson for practicing and testing procedures for operating the spacecraft on Mars.

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Mars Express Views Nanedi Valles
Paris, France (SPX) Apr 25, 2006
ESA's Mars Express orbiter captured this image with its High Resolution Stereo Camera that shows the Nanedi Valles valley system, a steep-sided feature that may have been formed in part by free-flowing water.

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