Phoenix Mission Gets Thumbs Up to Prepare for 2007 Launch

Lori Stiles
May 27, 2005

NASA has given a green light to the Phoenix Mission, a long-armed lander designed to examine the icy plains of northern Mars for potential habitats in water ice, and to look for evidence of life, past or present.

Today's announcement allows the Phoenix Mission to proceed with preparing the spacecraft for launch in August 2007. This major milestone followed a critical review of the project's planning progress and preliminary design, since its selection in 2003.

Phoenix is the first project in NASA's Mars Scout Program of competitively selected missions. Scouts are innovative and relatively low-cost complements to the core missions of the agency's Mars Exploration Program.

"The Phoenix Mission explores new territory in the northern plains of Mars analogous to the permafrost regions on the Earth," said University of Arizona scientist Peter Smith, the project's principal investigator. "NASA's confirmation supports this program and may eventually lead to discoveries relating to life on our neighboring planet. Our team at the UA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Lockheed Martin worked exceptionally hard to take us through this important gate in the program."

Phoenix is a stationary lander. It has a robotic arm to dig down to the Martian ice layer and deliver samples to sophisticated analytical instruments on the lander's deck. It is specifically designed to measure volatiles, such as water and organic molecules, in the northern polar region of Mars. In 2002, NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter found evidence of ice-rich soil very near the surface in the artic regions.

Like its namesake, Phoenix "rises from the ashes," carrying the legacies of two earlier attempts to explore Mars. The 2001 Mars Surveyor lander, administratively mothballed in 2000, is being resurrected for Phoenix. Many of the scientific instruments for Phoenix were built or designed for the mission or flew on the unsuccessful Mars Polar Lander of 1999.

"The Phoenix team's quick response to the Odyssey discoveries and the cost-saving adaptation of earlier missions' technology are just the kind of flexibility the Mars Scout Program seeks to elicit," said NASA's Mars Exploration Program Director, Doug McCuistion.

"Phoenix revives pieces of past missions in order to take NASA's Mars exploration into an exciting future," said NASA's Director, Solar System Division, Science Mission Directorate, Andrew Dantzler.

The cost of the Phoenix Mission is $386 million, which includes the launch. The partnership developing the Phoenix Mission includes The University of Arizona; NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.; Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver; and the Canadian Space Agency, which is providing weather-monitoring instruments.

"The confirmation review is an important step for all NASA missions," said JPL's Barry Goldstein, project manager for Phoenix. "This approval essentially confirms NASA's confidence that the spacecraft and science instruments will be successfully built and launched, and that once the lander is on Mars, the science objectives can be fully achieved."

Much work lies ahead. Team members will assemble and test every subsystem on the spacecraft and science payload to show they comply with design requirements. Other tasks include selecting a landing site and preparing to operate the spacecraft after launch. Phoenix Mission science operations will be run from the project's building at 1415 N. Sixth Ave., Tucson. It will be the first time space mission science operations will be based at a university.

UA College of Science Dean Joaquin Ruiz called the Phoenix Mission "one of the most ambitious research and engineering endeavors attempted by any university. I am proud that NASA's review deems that the project is properly structured by Peter Smith and his team. The University of Arizona has been a leader in Mars studies and the Phoenix Mission is an amazing continuation of the university's search for life on other planets."

"Probably from the beginning of human consciousness, people have asked if we are alone in the universe," UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory Director Michael Drake said. "Phoenix will not tell us if intelligent life is out there, but it may tell us if life ever got started on Mars. If life did get started on Mars, we are probably not alone. That will change the way humanity thinks about itself, and we may have an answer in 2008."

NASA's next Mars-bound spacecraft, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is scheduled for launch Aug. 10, 2005. MRO carries the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), led by UA Professor Alfred McEwen. HiRISE will take thousands of the sharpest, most detailed pictures of Mars ever produced from an orbiting spacecraft, including pictures of the Phoenix Mission landing site.


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