The first mission chosen for the NASA Scout Program. NASA’s sixth successful landing. The first mission to successfully land on a polar region of Mars. The Phoenix Mars Lander.
The complement of the Phoenix spacecraft and its scientific instruments are ideally suited to uncover clues to the geologic history and biological potential of the Martian arctic. Phoenix will be the first mission to return data from either polar region providing an important contribution to the overall Mars science strategy “Follow the Water” and will be instrumental in achieving the four science goals of NASA’s long-term Mars Exploration Program.
- Determine whether Life ever arose on Mars
- Characterize the Climate of Mars
- Characterize the Geology of Mars
- Prepare for Human Exploration
The Phoenix Mars Lander was a stepping stone for NASA. Led by Principal Investigator Peter H. Smith of the University of Arizona, managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and developed by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, the Phoenix was the crossing of academia, government and industry.
With a mission to study the history of Mars’ water, explore evidence of habitable Martian zones and analyze the biology of Mars’ ice-soil boundary, the Phoenix was equipped with state-of-the-art technology. The lander’s deck was affixed with a suite of advanced and sophisticated scientific instruments that planet Mars had ever seen. These instruments could help scientists in accurately modeling the past Martian climate and predicting its future weather processes.
Phoenix’s Development Stage
Before Phoenix’s suite of instruments were placed onto its deck, the lander’s thermal, electrical, mechanical and communications subsystems were electrically integrated. From November 2006 to March 2007, the lander underwent intense testing from asphyxiation to freezing to baking in preparation for its mission to Mars. The lander was also bombarded with powerful reverberations that simulated the stresses it would experience throughout the launch. Phoenix was further pounded with electromagnetic radiation to mimic the exposure that it would receive throughout outer space and from Mars’s scant atmosphere.
The final assembly of the lander was conducted in May 2007 prior to being shipped to the Kennedy Space Center. Phoenix was later connected to its Delta II rocket launch vehicle for takeoff in August.
JPL built a robotic arm for the Phoenix to dig through the Martian soil to reach the underlying layer of water ice. JPL also constructed a chemistry lab-in-a-box that allowed the mission to characterize the chemistry of ice and soil samples. The deck of the lander contained a mass spectrometer completed with miniature ovens designed by the University of Arizona and the University of Texas-Dallas. The mass spectrometer combined with the miniature ovens were designed for the Phoenix to chemically analyze trace matter. The University of Arizona, Switzerland’s University of Neuchatel, Germany’s Max Planck Institute and Malin Space Science Systems provided the imaging systems that Phoenix used to send wide photographic views of Mars to Earth. The University of Neuchatel also provided an atomic force microscope to further analyze the samples. Canada’s Space Agency delivered a meteorological station which cataloged Mars’s daily weather.
Success of Phoenix’s Instruments
On May 31, 2008, Phoenix’s robotic arm touched the surface of Mars and began taking samples of Martian soil and ice. Using its robotic arm camera, Phoenix captured patches of a smooth bright surface on Mars which NASA later confirmed to be ice. July 31, 2008, NASA announced its confirmation that the lander uncovered ice on Mars. The confirmation of water-ice verified the early findings of NASA’s Mars Odyssey Orbiter. Phoenix’s excavation of soil revealed two unique ice deposits.
Phoenix also recorded findings of an uncanny composition of soil mildly made of alkaline. The lander discovered small concentrations of salts potentially valuable for life and perchlorate salt from samples of ice and soil. The lander additionally uncovered calcium carbonate which is an indicator of liquid water.
Phoenix’s cameras captured over 25,000 images of Mars. The atomic force microscope captured unprecedented atomic level images of the Red Planet. Phoenix also observed snow falling from Martian clouds and provided record of Mars’s weather through its meteorological station. The meteorological station recorded temperature, instances of humidity, pressure, and wind. Phoenix detected Martian haze, clouds, frost and whirlwinds through coordination with NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
According to Phoenix’s Project Manager Barry Goldstein, “Phoenix not only met the tremendous challenge of landing safely, it accomplished scientific investigations on 149 of its 152 Martian days as a result of dedicated work by a talented team.”
The Phoenix Mars Lander played a pivotal role in the future of Martian exploration. Its success as the first mission to land on a polar region of Mars paved a pathway for its successors, which includes the Curiosity Rover and now its sister mission, Insight.
- Spacecraft & Instruments
- Phoenix Mars Lander Overview
- Mission Phases
- Mars Phoenix Lander Finishes Successful Work on Red Planet