Phoenix Mission Science & Technology

May 21, 2008


Mars is a cold desert planet with no liquid water on its surface. But in the Martian arctic, water ice lurks just below ground level. Discoveries made by the Mars Odyssey Orbiter in 2002 show large amounts of subsurface water ice in the northern arctic plain. The Phoenix lander targets this circumpolar region using a robotic arm to dig through the protective top soil layer to the water ice below and ultimately, to bring both soil and water ice to the lander platform for sophisticated scientific analysis.

The complement of the Phoenix spacecraft and its scientific instruments are ideally suited to uncover clues to the geologic history and biological potential of the Martian arctic. Phoenix will be the first mission to return data from either polar region providing an important contribution to the overall Mars science strategy “Follow the Water” and will be instrumental in achieving the four science goals of NASA’s long-term Mars Exploration Program.
Determine whether Life ever arose on Mars
Characterize the Climate of Mars
Characterize the Geology of Mars
Prepare for Human Exploration

The Phoenix Mission has two bold objectives to support these goals, which are to (1) study the history of water in the Martian arctic and (2) search for evidence of a habitable zone and assess the biological potential of the ice-soil boundary

Science Objectives

Objective 1: Study the History of Water in All its Phases

Currently, water on Mars’ surface and atmosphere exists in two states: gas and solid. At the poles, the interaction between the solid water ice at and just below the surface and the gaseous water vapor in the atmosphere is believed to be critical to the weather and climate of Mars. Phoenix will be the first mission to collect meteorological data in the Martian arctic needed by scientists to accurately model Mars’ past climate and predict future weather processes.

Liquid water does not currently exist on the surface of Mars, but evidence from Mars Global Surveyor, Odyssey and Exploration Rover missions suggest that water once flowed in canyons and persisted in shallow lakes billions of years ago. However, Phoenix will probe the history of liquid water that may have existed in the arctic as recently as 100,000 years ago. Scientists will better understand the history of the Martian arctic after analyzing the chemistry and mineralogy of the soil and ice using robust instruments.

Objective 2: Search for Evidence of Habitable Zone and Assess the Biological Potential of the Ice-Soil Boundary

Recent discoveries have shown that life can exist in the most extreme conditions. Indeed, it is possible that bacterial spores can lie dormant in bitterly cold, dry, and airless conditions for millions of years and become activated once conditions become favorable. Such dormant microbial colonies may exist in the Martian arctic, where due to the periodic wobbling of the planet, liquid water may exist for brief periods about every 100,000 years making the soil environment habitable.

Phoenix will assess the habitability of the Martian northern environment by using sophisticated chemical experiments to assess the soil’s composition of life giving elements such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and hydrogen. Identified by chemical analysis, Phoenix will also look at reduction-oxidation (redox) molecular pairs that may determine whether the potential chemical energy of the soil can sustain life, as well as other soil properties critical to determine habitability such as pH and saltiness.

Despite having the proper ingredients to sustain life, the Martian soil may also contain hazards that prevent biological growth, such as powerful oxidants that break apart organic molecules. Powerful oxidants that can break apart organic molecules are expected in dry environments bathed in UV light, such as the surface of Mars. But a few inches below the surface, the soil could protect organisms from the harmful solar radiation. Phoenix will dig deep enough into the soil to analyze the soil environment potentially protected from UV looking for organic signatures and potential habitability.

NASA Science Goals

Phoenix seeks to verify the presence of the Martian Holy Grail: water and habitable conditions. In doing so, the mission strongly complements the four goals of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program.

Goal 1: Determine whether life ever arose on Mars

Continuing the Viking missions’ quest, but in an environment known to be water-rich, Phoenix searches for signatures of life at the soil-ice interface just below the Martian surface. Phoenix will land in the artic plains, where its robotic arm will dig through the dry soil to reach the ice layer, bring the soil and ice samples to the lander platform, and analyze these samples using advanced scientific instruments. These samples may hold the key to understanding whether the Martian arctic is a habitable zone where microbes could grow and reproduce during moist conditions.

Goal 2: Characterize the climate of Mars

Phoenix will land during the retreat of the Martian polar cap, when cold soil is first exposed to sunlight after a long winter. The interaction between the ground surface and the Martian atmosphere that occurs at this time is critical to understanding the present and past climate of Mars. To gather data about this interaction and other surface meteorological conditions, Phoenix will provide the first weather station in the Martian polar region, with no others currently planned. Data from this station will have a significant impact in improving global climate models of Mars.

Goal 3: Characterize the geology of Mars

As on Earth, the past history of water is written below the surface because liquid water changes the soil chemistry and mineralogy in definite ways. Phoenix will use a suite of chemistry experiments to thoroughly analyze the soil’s chemistry and mineralogy. Some scientists speculate the landing site for Phoenix may have been a deep ocean in the planet’s distant past leaving evidence of sedimentation. If fine sediments of mud and silt are found at the site, it may support the hypothesis of an ancient ocean. Alternatively, coarse sediments of sand might indicate past flowing water, especially if these grains are rounded and well sorted. Using the first true microscope on Mars, Phoenix will examine the structure of these grains to better answer these questions about water’s influence on the geology of Mars.

Goal 4: Prepare for human exploration

The Phoenix Mission will provide evidence of water ice and assess the soil chemistry in Martian arctic. Water will be a critical resource to future human explorers and Phoenix may provide appreciable information on how water may be acquired on the planet. Understanding the soil chemistry will provide understanding of the potential resources available for human explorers to the northern plains.

Scientific Measurements

Phoenix’s Robotic Arm (RA) is the single most crucial element to making scientific measurements. The robotic arm combines strength and finesse to dig trenches, scrape water ice, and precisely deliver samples to other instruments on the science deck. Also, the robotic arm carries a camera and thermal-electric probe to make measurements directly in the trench.

The following table shows the relationships between Phoenix’s science objectives, the scientific measurements to be made, and the instruments that will make these measurements.

SSI = Surface Stereo Imager
RAC = Robotic Arm Camera
MARDI = Mars Descent Imager
TEGA = Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer
MECA = Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer
WC = Wet Chemistry Experiment
M = Microscopy, including the Optical Microscope and the Atomic Force Microscope
TECP = Thermal and Electrical Conductivity Probe
MET = Meteorological Station

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