Pieces of NASA's Next Mars Mission are Coming Together

April 27, 2006
Artist's concept of Phoenix spacecraft.
Artist's concept of Phoenix spacecraft.

NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander, the next mission to the surface of Mars, is beginning a new phase in preparation for a launch in August 2007.

As part of this "assembly, test and launch operations" phase, Phoenix team members are beginning to add complex subsystems such as the flight computer, power systems and science instruments to the main structure of the spacecraft. The work combines efforts of Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver; the University of Arizona, Tucson; and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

"All the subsystems and instruments from a wide range of suppliers are tested separately, but now we are beginning the vital stage of assembling them together and testing how they will function with each other," said JPL's Barry Goldstein, project manager for Phoenix.

Phoenix will land near the red planet's north polar ice cap to analyze scooped-up samples of icy soil.

"We know there is plenty of water frozen into the surface layer of Mars at high latitudes. We've designed Phoenix to tell us more about this region as a possible habitat for life," said the University of Arizona's Peter Smith, principal investigator for the mission.

Phoenix is the first mission of NASA's Mars Scout Program of competitively proposed, relatively low-cost missions to Mars. The program is currently soliciting proposals for a 2011 Scout mission.

The Phoenix proposal, selected in 2003, saves expense by using a lander structure, subsystem components and protective aeroshell originally built for a 2001 lander mission that was canceled while in development. The budget for the Phoenix mission, including launch, is $386 million.

The spacecraft will land using descent thrusters just prior to touchdown, rather than airbags like those used by the current Mars Exploration Rovers. As Phoenix parachutes through Mars' lower atmosphere in May 2008, a descent camera will take images for providing geological context about the landing site.

The robotic arm being built for Phoenix will be about 2 meters (7 feet) long, jointed at the elbow and wrist, and equipped with a camera and scoop. It will dig as deep as about 50 centimeters (20 inches) and deliver samples to instruments on the spacecraft deck that will analyze physical and chemical properties of the ices and other materials. A stereo color camera will examine the landing site's terrain and provide positioning information for the arm. The Canadian Space Agency is providing a suite of weather instruments for Phoenix.

"The propulsion system and the wiring harness have been added to the vehicle," said Ed Sedivy, Phoenix program manager for Lockheed Martin. "We will be loading flight software onto the flight computer in the next few days. The flight software is much more mature than typical for a planetary program at this stage. As soon as the flight computer is mated up, we can apply external power to the vehicle."

Navigation components, such as star trackers, and communication subsystems will become part of the spacecraft in coming weeks, followed by science instruments in the summer.

Phoenix will be shipped to NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Florida, in May 2007, for final preparations leading up to launch. Before that, testing in Colorado will subject the spacecraft to expected operational environments. This includes thermal and vacuum tests simulating the 10-month trip to Mars and conditions on Mars' surface. Meanwhile, the mission is preparing a test facility in Tucson for practicing and testing procedures for operating the spacecraft on Mars.

Source: JPL

Explore further: Did 40-year-old Viking experiment discover life on Mars?

Related Stories

Did 40-year-old Viking experiment discover life on Mars?

October 21, 2016

(Phys.org)—In 1976, two Viking landers became the first US spacecraft from Earth to touch down on Mars. They took the first high-resolution images of the planet, surveyed the planet's geographical features, and analyzed ...

NASA OKs 2007 Phoenix Mars Mission

June 3, 2005

NASA has given the green light to a project to put a long-armed lander onto the icy ground of the far-northern martian plains. NASA's Phoenix lander is designed to examine the site for potential habitats for water ice and ...

NASA says Phoenix Mars mission has ended (Update 2)

November 10, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander has ceased communications after operating for more than five months. As anticipated, seasonal decline in sunshine at the robot's arctic landing site is not providing enough sunlight ...

Phoenix Mars Mission Faces Survival Challenges

October 29, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- In a race against time and the elements, engineers with NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander mission hope to extend the lander's survival by gradually shutting down some of its instruments and heaters, starting today. ...

Recommended for you

STEREO—10 years of revolutionary solar views

October 26, 2016

Launched 10 years ago, on Oct. 25, 2006, the twin spacecraft of NASA's STEREO mission – short for Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory – have given us unprecedented views of the sun, including the first-ever simultaneous ...

Image: Changing colors in Saturn's pole

October 26, 2016

These two natural color images from NASA's Cassini spacecraft show the changing appearance of Saturn's north polar region between 2012 and 2016.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.