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Just What is the Phoenix Mars Lander?

written by: •edited by: Jason C. Chavis•updated: 1/16/2009

On May 25, 2008, Mars was once again landed upon by an Earth probe. This time it was the Phoenix Mars Lander. The probe has already begun to execute its mission to peel away the mysteries that shroud the presence of water on the red planet.

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    What is the Phoenix Mars Lander?

    You’ve probably been hearing a lot about Phoenix in the news lately and if you haven’t figured it out yet, they’re not talking about the capital of Arizona.

    What is Phoenix? The Phoenix Mars Lander is the latest probe sent from Earth to explore the planet Mars. It is a combined effort of JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), the University of Arizona and Lockheed Martin Space Systems with contributions from universities and businesses in Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, Germany and Canada. The probe successfully landed in the northern arctic region of Mars on May 25, 2008 after a 10-month journey. This is the first time we’ve landed this far north; all previous landings were in the equatorial zone.

    What is its mission? Phoenix is on Mars to investigate the history and presence of water on Mars—not to discover if there is life on Mars. It will also assess if the arctic region presents a habitable environment for life to exist.

    How’s it going to do that? Phoenix has a suite of instruments to carry out its mission objectives.

    • TEGA – Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer. Used to determine the chemical nature of the soil/ice sampled; looking for organic compounds and water among other things.
    • MECA – Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer. MECA combines several instruments including a wet chemistry lab, optical and atomic force microscopes, and a thermal and electrical conductivity probe. These instruments will contribute to understanding the chemical characteristics of the samples and will also provide valuable information on the physical nature of the particles including their thermal and electrical properties.
    • MET – Meteorological Station. Monitoring the weather helps scientists to better understand how weather works on Mars and also gives them clues as to how the water and carbon dioxide cycle between their solid and gas phases. This information will allow the scientists to fine tune their model of the Martian atmosphere.
    • SSI – Surface Stereo Imager. A high resolution, stereo camera that will document everything from the layers of soil exposed in the trenches that are dug for samples to the clouds that pass overhead to help characterize the Martian arctic environment.
    • RA – Robotic Arm. The key piece of equipment on the probe that will deliver the soil samples to the instruments for analysis. The arm is about 8 feet long and can dig trenches down to about 1.6 feet deep.

    Why is it called Phoenix? Like the mythical firebird, which arises from the ashes of its predecessor, the Phoenix probe rose out of the remnants of two previous Mars missions: Mars Polar Lander, which crashed while landing on Mars on December 3, 1999 and the Mars Surveyor 2001 Lander, which was canceled for budgetary reasons. The Phoenix mission adopted many of the objectives of the Polar Lander and many pieces of equipment from the 2001 Lander.

    How long will Phoenix operate? Phoenix will function for about 2 to 3 months before the sun fades with the approaching Martian winter and the lander will no longer receive enough power from its solar arrays to remain functioning. Will it resurrect itself on the next Martian spring as the sun rises higher? Most likely not, but who knows, maybe Phoenix will live up to its namesake!

    Want more information? For the latest information on the Phoenix mission, along with much more about the dedicated people involved, the hardware, the science, the ongoing challenges, and an interactive section for children (for all you cat lovers out there don’t miss “Steve the cat”) check out this link to JPL’s site:

    But wait! There’s more! In 2009 there will be a launch of MSL—Mars Scientific Laboratory, which will continue the investigation into the possibility of life on Mars but do so on a roving platform. To give you an idea of what MSL is about just think of Phoenix’s laboratory capabilities combined with the mobility of the rovers, Opportunity and Spirit (on steroids!), operating on Mars today! For more information:

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    Left – Phoenix descending to the Martian surface taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which passed overhead as Phoenix landed. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

    Middle – Artist (Corby Waste of JPL) rendition of Phoenix on the surface of Mars. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

    Right – Photograph taken by MRO of Phoenix and its components after it landed on Mars. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

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    Phoenix landing as taken by MRO.Artist's rendition of Phoenix on the surface of MarsPhoenix and its components on the surface.