May 23, 2008

Mars Lander Will Be Co-Piloted By Univ. of Arizona Scientists

A NASA operated robotic spacecraft is scheduled to land Sunday on Mars, but scientists from a lab at the University of Arizona will be telling the robot what to do.

The Phoenix Mars Lander must make a successful touchdown in the northern polar region of the red planet before NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California will turn over scientific control to the Tucson researchers. The Lunar and Planetary Laboratory has been dealing with missions to the red planet since 1964.

This will mark the first time that a public university has led a Mars mission. Decisions on the robot's actions will be made by principal scientist Peter H. Smith and his colleagues in Arizona, while the NASA team will send those commands to the robot.

The Phoenix Lander's mission is to study whether the ice beneath the Martian surface ever melted. It will look for traces of organic compounds in the permafrost to determine if life could have emerged at the site.

"If we could find it, and if we can convince ourselves it's Martian and not something we carried from Earth, then we literally have the smoking gun for present or past life on Mars," said lab director Michael Drake.

For Smith, a veteran of space and Mars explorations, it will be his third attempt to successfully place a lander on Mars' surface.

The Mars Polar Lander crashed in December 1999 on its landing approach at the Martian south pole. Smith built the cameras on the lander.

After the mishap in 1999, a mission in which Smith worked on the microscope and robotic arm built for the Mars Survey Lander was cancelled.

"We have to assume we could have been further ahead in our understanding of Mars if the Polar Lander had been a success," Smith said.

Smith likened the experience to "falling off a horse and getting back on and learning how to ride again."

"The laboratory's scientists have been involved at some level with virtually every successful Mars mission," said Drake.

In 1993, Smith developed a camera used in NASA's Pathfinder mission that sent back images beginning July 4, 1997, from the Sojourner Rover. Since then, he has focused much of his work on Mars.

Smith was part of the science team for the rovers Spirit and Opportunity that have been researching on Mars since early 2004. In 2005, he was the project manager for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's sophisticated camera that has returned more than 25,000 images and 3,500 radar observations since early 2006.

Barry Goldstein, program manager of Phoenix at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who has known Smith for a decade, said Peter is a very positive person. "His optimism is rather contagious and his enthusiasm is contagious."

A 50,000-square-foot warehouse near the University of Arizona campus will run the historic operations during the Phoenix mission. The warehouse also holds two full-scale models of the Phoenix Mars lander, one on a platform surrounded by a rocky landscape depicting the terrain where the real lander is expected to come to rest.

William Boynton, who's worked on three previous Mars missions, said scientists are confident.

"The odds are certainly well in our favor that this will be a good success," he said.

Image Courtesy University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory


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