Phoenix mission clears two important hurdles for 2007 launch

 Mars global view

Above: Polar region of Mars where Phoenix lander will search for water

The York team working on the meteorological package for NASA’s 2007 Phoenix mission to Mars saw the project clear two major hurdles this month as the complex process of preparing the spacecraft for launch passed design confirmation reviews at meetings held in the US and Canada.

Phoenix landerNASA gave the green light to the project after a series of meetings to confirm that the spacecraft (left) and its Canadian MET weather instrumentation package will be completed on time and work as planned. The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) also gave its approval to the MET package design at meetings attended by members of York’s Centre for Research in Earth & Space Science.

The York-led Canadian Phoenix team (see story in the Aug. 6, 2003 issue of YFile) which is headed by the CSA, is developing the meteorological station including temperature, pressure and lidar (laser radar) instrumentation for studies of the Martian atmosphere.

MET shroudRight: Drawing of MET package in its shroud

Peter Taylor, professor of atmospheric science in York’s Department of Earth & Space Science &  Engineering, Faculty of Science & Engineering, said both agencies’ approvals involved many meetings including the formal CSA review where the MET package design was presented by York Professor Jim Whiteway, Canada Research Chair in Space Engineering & Atmospheric Science. Whiteway is a specialist in the LIDAR technology developed by Canadian firms MDA Corporation and Optech Inc., which will observe the boundary layer of Mars for signs of moisture, a necessary condition for life on the planet.

“There are still lots of action items outstanding,” said Taylor, “but it’s certainly a big hurdle to have got over.”

MET mastTaylor said the team was also pleased to hear that NASA had approved additional funding for the entry, descent and landing portion of the project.

Left: Drawing of MET package’s mast

“The confirmation review is an important step for all major NASA missions,” explained Barry Goldstein, project manager for Phoenix at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. “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 successfully achieved.”

The Canadian science team is centred at York’s Centre for Research in Earth & Space Science with Professors Diane Michelangeli, Taylor, and Whiteway, and Professor Emeritus Allan Carswell playing leading roles. Also involved are scientists from Dalhousie University, the University of Alberta and the Geological Survey of Canada along with colleagues from the US and Finland.

Phoenix is scheduled to land on the icy ground of the far-northern Martian plains where it will examine the site for potential habitats for water ice and look for possible indicators of life, past or present.

The design confirmation review announcement allows the Phoenix mission to proceed with preparing the spacecraft for launch in Aug. 2007.

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.

potential landing siteRight: Photo of potential landing site in Mars’ arctic region 

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 arctic regions.

The cost of the Phoenix mission is US$386 million, which includes the launch. The partnership developing the Phoenix mission includes the University of Arizona, the JPL, Lockheed Martin Space Systems and the CSA.

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, which should be aided by data provided by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launching in August, and preparing to operate the spacecraft after launch.