Thursday, November 16, 2006
Carol Stoker, a planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center, is a team member for the upcoming Phoenix Lander (website). This mission, launching in 2007, aims to land in the high northern latitudes of Mars to search for frozen water and any indications of past habitable conditions. In this interview with Astrobiology Magazine's Leslie Mullen, Stoker describes what Phoenix can expect to find when it lands on the northern plains of Mars, and why astrobiologists have high hopes for finding the signs of life there.
Astrobiology Magazine (AM): You've outlined three things that any place on Mars would need to be considered habitable: liquid water, an energy source, and the chemical building blocks of life.
Carol Stoker (CS) : That strategy for assessing the habitability of a site was laid out by MEPAG: the Mars Exploration and Payload Analysis Group. They've developed a program for the exploration of Mars over the next decade, and they appointed a committee to devise a strategy for the astrobiology field laboratory. That's the mission after Mars Science Laboratory which is supposed to try to detect life. The committee recommended how to pick a landing site for that mission, and also what are the precursor things that need to be done before you can fly a mission to look for life..."
Continued at "The Mars Phoenix Lander: Piercing Together Life's Potential"
Mission Overview from NASA:
Launch: August, 2007
Arrival: May 25, 2008
The Phoenix mission is the first chosen for NASA's Scout program, an initiative for smaller, lower-cost, competed spacecraft. Named for the resilient mythological bird, Phoenix uses a lander that was intended for use by 2001's Mars Surveyor lander prior to its cancellation. It also carries a complex suite of instruments that are improved variations of those that flew on the lost Mars Polar Lander.
In the continuing pursuit of water on Mars, the poles are a good place to probe, as water ice is found there. Phoenix will land on the icy northern pole of Mars between 65 and 75-north latitude. During the course of the 150 Martian day mission, Phoenix will deploy its robotic arm and dig trenches up to half a meter (1.6 feet) into the layers of water ice. These layers, thought to be affected by seasonal climate changes, could contain organic compounds that are necessary for life.
To analyze soil samples collected by the robotic arm, Phoenix will carry an "oven" and a "portable laboratory." Selected samples will be heated to release volatiles that can be examined for their chemical composition and other characteristics.
Imaging technology inherited from both the Pathfinder and Mars Exploration Rover missions will also be implemented in Phoenix's stereo camera, located on its 2-meter (6.6-foot) mast. The camera's two "eyes" will reveal a high-resolution perspective of the landing site's geology, and will also provide range maps that will enable the team to choose ideal digging locations. Multi-spectral capability will enable the identification of local minerals.
To update our understanding of martian atmospheric processes, Phoenix will also scan the martian atmosphere up to 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) in altitude, obtaining data about the formation, duration and movement of clouds, fog, and dust plumes. It will also carry temperature and pressure sensors.
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