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The Phoenix Lander arrives near the north pole of Mars


Barcelona, 14th March 2008

On 25th May 2008, at 23:36 TU it is planned that the Phoenix Lander, the main piece of the first mission of the NASA's Scout program, land on the Mars surface, in order to find important data for the study of the history of water on the red planet and to determine its potential habitability. Simulació per ordinador de l'aspecte de la sonda d'aterratge Phoenix sobre la superfície de Mart. Destaca especialment el braç robòtic de què disposa per obtenir mostres del subsòl del planeta vermell.
The Phoenix Lander on the arctic plains of Mart
Credits: NASA i University of Arizona

The Phoenix mission, launched on 4th August 2007, has been designed to study the Martian soil and subsoil, and has the aim to obtain data about the weather and the geology of Mars that make us able to answer some questions, as the following: "can life exist in the Martian iced subsoil at the poles?", "when did the liquid water disappear from the surface of Mars?", "how does the processes between the iced and gaseous water that take place at the Martian poles affect the weather of Mars?". Moreover, the paper of the Phoenix mission could be essential for the preparation of future manned missions to Mars, because of the data it could obtain about where the water is and its chemical composition.

These important aims are not new for the NASA, who had already tried to achieve them twice: with the failed Mars Polar Lander, which did not return data from its landing site near the Martian south pole, and with the Mars Surveyor 2001 Lander, which wasn't sent finally, in spite of having been developed nearly until the end. In fact, the Phoenix mission was named this way, recalling the mythological bird, because it "rises from the ashes" of these two endeavors, from which has inherited some instruments.

This time the mission has the best features from its predecessors and mixes them with the most advanced technology of the moment, and everything for a relatively small amount of money, as the Scout program intend: to provide competitive missions, at low cost, to supplement the main track of missions belonging to the NASA's Mars Exploration Program.

Fotografia de la sonda Phoenix, en el laboratori, amb els panells solars estesos, envoltada per alguns dels treballadors del projecte. S'aprecia perfectament la mida de la sonda espacial: més o menys com una furgoneta de transport mitjana.
The Phoenix Lander with fully deployed solar panels.
Credits: NASA and University of Arizona.

As can be observed in the previous image, the Phoenix Lander is not a "rover", as other of the last missions to Mars: it has a limited ability to move once has landed. It is why the scientists and engineers responsible of the mission know exactly where they want to go: to 68º North, 233º East on Mars, where they have firm proves, obtained by previous missions, that in the subsoil, just some inches under the surface, there is iced water. So, to reach the water, the lander has a robotic arm, as the Mars Polar Lander, able to dig through the hard surface of Mars to the interesting layers.

Recreació de l'aspecte de la sonda Phoenix sobre el vermellós terreny de Mart, amb el seu braç robòtic estès retallant-se sobre l'horitzó en el moment de l'ocàs.
Rendition of the Phoenix Lander working on the surface of Mars
Credits: NASA and University of Arizona.

In order to analyze the obtained samples, the Phoenix Lander has a great amount of different instruments: miniature ovens, a mass spectrometer, a lab-in-a-box for the chemical tasks, a meteorological station and various image systems, from which the atomic force microscope is the most important. These instruments have been built with the collaboration of universities from the United States, Canada, Germany and Switzerland, as well as private companies, and are face to face with the challenge of resist for three months the enormous thermal amplitudes of this area of the surface of Mars, equivalent to the north of Alaska in our own planet: from -133 to +22 ºC.

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