NASA launches Phoenix spacecraft, August 4, 2007

-August 04, 2017

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Early in the morning on August 4, 2007, a Delta II rocket launched the Phoenix spacecraft into the Florida sky (see NASA image below). Its mission: to determine whether Mars could have once supported life.

“This is a stepping stone for future missions because the number one NASA goal is searching for life outside the Earth’s boundaries inside the Solar System,” said Peter Smith, of the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and Phoenix’s principal investigator, during a prelaunch briefing.
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Headed by the University of Arizona under the direction of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the $420 million Phoenix Mars Mission, scheduled to last 90 sols (Martian solar days, or about 92 Earth days), was the first in NASA’s smaller, lower-cost Scout program. It was designed to study the history of water and the potential for habitability on the Red Planet.

According to a article about the launch, the Phoenix mission was “built on the ashes of NASA’s canceled Mars Surveyor 2001 Lander and the ill-fated Mars Polar Lander, which crashed during landing in December 1999.” Much of the 18×7.2-ft, 772-pound probe and its instruments were built from hardware based on or recycled from those earlier missions.

Several years before the Phoenix concept was developed, NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey mission had mapped the amount and distribution of several chemical elements and minerals that compose the surface of Mars. A determination of the hydrogen distribution led scientists to conclude that large amounts of water ice were buried just below the surface in the planet’s northern arctic plain. Phoenix was intended to follow up on those earlier findings and target this region, retrieving soil and water ice for analysis.

Instead of the rovers used in past successful Mars missions, mission managers opted to use a fixed lander for the Phoenix project, explaining that the Phoenix lander “knew” what it wanted to study and needed to dig just below the surface. The rovers used previously were designed to study rocks at different locations along the Martian surface. Re-using earlier equipment also saved on cost, and avoiding the equipment weight that would be required to enable the spacecraft to travel opened up possibilities for the reallocation of space for improved scientific instruments.

This is an artist’s concept illustration of the Phoenix Mars Lander. Source: NASA/JPL-Calech/University of Arizona

The Phoenix lander arrived on Mars May 25, 2008, landing in an area informally named “Green Valley” and expected to contain the largest concentration of ice outside the poles. “If you want to search for a habitable zone in the arctic permafrost, then this is the place to go," said UA’s Smith.

During its mission, Phoenix confirmed and examined patches of the widespread deposits of underground water ice detected by Odyssey and identified a mineral called calcium carbonate that suggested the occasional presence of thawed water. The lander also found a mildly alkaline soil chemistry, which was thought to have significant implications for the potential for life. In addition to gathering data on temperature, pressure, humidity, and wind, Phoenix observed falling snow, a milestone in understanding the Martian weather.

This mosaic combines a number of images taken by the Surface Stereo Imager camera on the Phoenix Mars Lander. It shows several trenches dug by Phoenix. Also viewable is a corner of the spacecraft's deck. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University

According to NASA, the mission's biggest surprise was the discovery of perchlorate, an oxidizing chemical on Earth that is food for some microbes and potentially toxic for others. “The perchlorate results are shaping subsequent astrobiology research, as scientists investigate the implications of its antifreeze properties and potential use as an energy source by microbes,” declared a NASA press release.

In addition, a separate NASA press release stated that “Phoenix's cameras also returned more than 25,000 pictures from sweeping vistas to near the atomic level using the first atomic force microscope ever used outside Earth.”

The duration of the mission exceeded original expectations. The Phoenix lander lasted a little over two months longer than its targeted three-month lifetime before succumbing to the bitter temperatures of the Martian winter. Several days after receiving a final signal from the lander on November 2, 2008 -- and following a severe dust storm that blocked sunlight from reaching the lander’s solar panels, thus draining its power -- engineers were unable to contact the craft and declared the mission concluded.

Scientists attempted several times to again make contact with Phoenix in 2010, but without success. The project was formally ended on May 24, 2010.

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Editor's note: This article was originally posted on August 4, 2014 and edited on August 4, 2017.

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