In fond memory of Phoenix- Mars Lander

This recent recipient of “Best of what’s New” by “Popular Science” magazine, was not only an innovation to answer queries about the red planet mars, but also a hope to many ignited minds to find life in outer space. Phoenix did its job beautifully and completed its programmed task before dying on Martian sands. The only setback to this mission was that this craft could not come back to earth with collected soil samples.

This mission’s principle investigator was Peter Smith, of the University of Arizona with project manager Barry Goldstein at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif and development partnership at Lockheed Mart in Space Systems, Denver with many international contributions. This entire project was worth 520 million dollars.

Launched on August 4 2007, Phoenix landed on May 25, 2008, farther north than any previous spacecraft to land on Martian surface. It then scoped up the soil, dug up the land, studied its characteristics, found Martian ice (which confirmed the previous detection by Mars Odyssey in 2002) and returned more than 25,000 pictures from sweeping vistas to the nano-atomic size using the first atomic force microscope ever used outside earth.

One of its works was to study whether the Martian artic environment has ever been favourable for microbes. Its findings support the hope that once Mars was habitable and it possibly supported life- as quoted by Doug McCuistion, director of Mars Exploration Programme, NASA. These findings include excavating soil above the ice table, revealing at least two distinct types of ice deposits and providing data on temperature, pressure, humidity and wind. Findings also include small concentration of salts that could be nutrients for life, discovering Perchlorate salt, which has implications for ice and soil properties and finding calcium carbonate, a marker of effects of liquid water. Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity (two earlier crafts on Mars) found sulphates around their landing sites on the planet’s equatorial region, but Phoenix could not find sulphate rocks. Hence there is a lack of sulphates. Although scientists do have concluded that today, the surface is much too cold for water to be in liquid form.

Phoenix’s abrupt end came due to the worsening weather conditions on Martian surface. Mission engineers last received a last signal from the Lander on November 2. Phoenix, in addition to shorter daylight, had encountered a dustier sky, more clouds and colder temperatures as the Northern Mars summer approaches autumn. As anticipated, seasonal decline in sunshine at the robot’s arctic landing site could not provide enough sunlight for the solar arrays to collect the power necessary to charge batteries that operate the lander’s instruments. As a result, phoenix could not be programmed to come back to earth with the collected samples.

Even after the drawbacks, Phoenix could provide a lot of valuable information. One thing is certain though; it is not possible to send a manned mission just in the coming years. But phoenix has given us hope and a reason to believe in life on outer space. It is a remarkable achievement for mankind. Maybe a next mission to Mars can be to find life, which never existed on Earth! Let us keep our imagination up, for it is the imagination and questions that lead to innovation and hence to more understanding.

Shambhavi Sharan

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