No, I'm not talking about a bunch of overpaid "athletes" playing a commercialized, overhyped game. I'm talking about a great achievement for NASA. Last night, around 7:45 PM EST, the Phoenix Lander made a perfect rocket assisted landing in Northern Artic region of Mars.
It started in 2002, when NASA decided to make a smaller, more affordable spacecraft to send to Mars. It was built using some parts from a cancelled mission after a larger craft was lost while trying to enter Mars atmosphere. The 400+ pound Phoenix lander was launched on August 4, 2007 and had a 422 million mile, 10 month journey to Mars.
Just getting from Earth to Mars is a technological marvel. The mathematics and physics are staggering. The spacecraft has to perform flawlessly. A fraction of a degree in trajectory or a fraction of a second in timing would either send the lander crashing directly into the surface or it could miss completely and be lost in space forever. But, that is really the easy part. Once it arrived near Mars, the craft had to enter the atmosphere on tangent and slow from 12000 mph to a dead stop landing in only a few minutes. After using the atmosphere resistance for primary slowing, protected by a heat sheild, it deployed a high speed parachuteat Mach 1.7. Three minutes later, Phoenix separated from the chute and was in free-fall until 12 rocket motors engaged. These steadied and slowed the craft until it finally touched the Martian surface.
Now scientists had to wait 20 minutes for the dust to clear before the solar panels could be deployed. If the panels were damaged or would not open, the craft would only last a day before the batteries and the mission would die. Fortunately, the solar panels opened perfectly. Now, Phoenix can begin it's mission. It is not a rover, like Spirit and Opportunity. Instead, it will dig down into the ground in search of water ice, expected to be within a meter of the surface. Scientists believe that there are large volumes of ice underground on Mars and that it once flowed on the surface. When water is present with high amounts of carbonates, the chances that life may have existed, increases. We are talking about little green men, but if bacterial fossils are ever found, it would have far reaching implications for us. If life could develope on 2 separate planets in 1 solar system, then given the incredible number of stars and systems similar to ours in the universe, life would almost certainly be there too.
Phoenix will also track ancient climate changes and provide information that will be usefull for future manned missions to Mars. Here is the link to the NASA webpage for Phoenix. It has already begun sending pictures from the surface.
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