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NASA Spacecraft Heads For Polar Region Of Mars

The Phoenix spacecraft launched from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard a Delta II rocket. Image credit: NASA
by Staff Writers
Cape Canaveral FL (SPX) Aug 04, 2007
NASA's Phoenix Mars Mission blasted off Saturday, aiming for a May 25, 2008, arrival at the Red Planet and a close-up examination of the surface of the northern polar region. Perched atop a Delta II rocket, the spacecraft left Cape Canaveral Air Force Base at 5:26 a.m. Eastern Time into the predawn sky above Florida's Atlantic coast.

"Today's launch is the first step in the long journey to the surface of Mars. We certainly are excited about launching, but we still are concerned about our actual landing, the most difficult step of this mission," said Phoenix Principal Investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, Tucson.

The spacecraft established communications with its ground team via the Goldstone, Calif., antenna station of NASA's Deep Space Network at 7:02 a.m. Eastern Time, after separating from the third stage of the launch vehicle.

"The launch team did a spectacular job getting us on the way," said Barry Goldstein, Phoenix project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "Our trajectory is still being evaluated in detail; however we are well within expected limits for a successful journey to the red planet. We are all thrilled!"

Phoenix will be the first mission to touch water-ice on Mars. Its robotic arm will dig to an icy layer believed to lie just beneath the surface. The mission will study the history of the water in the ice, monitor weather of the polar region, and investigate whether the subsurface environment in the far-northern plains of Mars has ever been favorable for sustaining microbial life.

"Water is central to every type of study we will conduct on Mars," Smith said.

The Phoenix Mars Mission is the first of NASA's competitively proposed and selected Mars Scout missions, supplementing the agency's core Mars Exploration Program, whose theme is "follow the water." The University of Arizona was selected to lead the mission in August 2003 and is the first public university to lead a Mars exploration mission.

Phoenix uses the main body of a lander originally made for a 2001 mission that was cancelled before launch. "During the past year we have run Phoenix through a rigorous testing regimen," said Ed Sedivy, Phoenix spacecraft program manager for Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, which built the spacecraft. "The testing approach runs the spacecraft and integrated instruments through actual mission sequences, allowing us to asses the entire system through the life of the mission while here on Earth."

Samples of soil and ice collected by the lander's robotic arm will be analyzed by instruments mounted on the deck. One key instrument will check for water and carbon-containing compounds by heating soil samples in tiny ovens and examining the vapors that are given off.

Another will test soil samples by adding water and analyzing the dissolution products. Cameras and microscopes will provide information on scales spanning 10 powers of 10, from features that could fit by the hundreds into a period at the end of a sentence to an aerial view taken during descent. A weather station will provide information about atmospheric processes in the arctic region.

The Phoenix mission is led by Smith, with project management at JPL and development partnership at Lockheed Martin, Denver. The NASA Launch Services Program at Kennedy Space Center and the United Launch Alliance are responsible for the Delta II launch service. International contributions are provided by the Canadian Space Agency, the University of Neuchatel (Switzerland), the University of Copenhagen (Denmark), the Max Planck Institute (Germany) and the Finnish Meteorological Institute. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

earlier related report
United Launch Alliance Successfully Launches Phoenix Spacecraft Bound For Mars
Cape Canaveral FL (SPX) Aug 04 - United Launch Alliance successfully launched a Delta II expendable launch vehicle today from Space Launch Complex 17A at 5:26 a.m., EDT carrying NASA's Phoenix spacecraft. This launch marks the second ULA mission conducted for NASA this year. "With the launch of Phoenix, ULA continues to show its dedication to providing safe, cost-effective, reliable access to space for U.S. government missions," said Mark Wilkins, ULA vice president, Delta Programs. "As NASA focuses on Mars exploration, ULA is privileged to support this critical mission."

Phoenix is the first in NASA's "Scout Program," which are spacecraft designed to be highly innovative and relatively low-cost complements to major missions being planned as part of the agency's human Mars Exploration Program. Following a 10-month journey to Mars, Phoenix will collect Martian soil and ice in the arctic region and use its onboard scientific instruments to analyze the samples. NASA's goal is to study Martian water history and habitability potential in the planet's arctic ice-rich soil.

The ULA Delta II 7925-9.5 configuration vehicle featured an ULA first stage booster powered by a Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne RS-27A main engine and nine Alliant Techsystems (ATK) strap-on solid rocket motors. An Aerojet AJ10-118K engine powered the second stage. A spin-stabilized Star-48B solid-rocket motor built by ATK boosted the third stage. The payload was encased by a 9.5-foot-diameter payload fairing.

ULA began processing the Delta II launch vehicle in Decatur, Ala., more than two years ago. In May, the first stage arrived from Decatur, followed by the second stage later that month. The vehicle was erected on the stand at Pad 17A, June 18, with solid rocket motor installation completed in July. Hundreds of ULA technicians, engineers and management worked to prepare the vehicle for the Phoenix mission.

earlier related report
Lockheed Martin-Built Phoenix Spacecraft Lifts Off For Nine Month Voyage To Mars
Cape Canaveral FL (SPX) Aug 04 - NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander, designed and built by Lockheed Martin [NYSE: LMT], was successfully launched this morning from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 5:26 a.m. EDT aboard a Delta II rocket provided by United Launch Alliance.

Initial contact with the spacecraft, called acquisition of signal, was obtained at 7:02 a.m. EDT by Lockheed Martin's Flight Operations team at its Space Systems Company facility near Denver. Mars is 121 million miles away from Earth today, but Phoenix will travel 422 million miles over its 9 ?-month journey.

"Our team is extremely proud to deliver mission success for such long-standing customers as NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory," said Jim Crocker, vice president of Sensing and Exploration Systems at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company. "We have a distinguished history of delivering Mars missions for NASA and we look forward to seeing the great science Phoenix will discover. The Lockheed Martin, JPL and University of Arizona teams have worked closely together over the last few years to make this mission a success and this morning's launch is a majestic start to the voyage."

Phoenix is the first mission of NASA's Mars Scout Program. Scheduled to arrive at Mars on May 25, 2008, the spacecraft will land on the icy northern latitudes of Mars. During its 90-day primary mission, Phoenix will dig trenches with its robotic arm into the frozen layers of water below the surface. The spacecraft will use various on-board instruments to analyze the contents of the ice and soil - checking for the presence of organic compounds and other conditions favorable for life.

"The entire series of launch-day events went like clockwork. Launch and initial acquisition is the first of our critical events, and it couldn't have gone smother," said Ed Sedivy, spacecraft program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company. "I'm thrilled to be on our way. I couldn't be more proud of the team of women and men whose hard work and tremendous dedication are helping make NASA's expanded knowledge of our solar system a reality."

During the next few weeks, engineers from Lockheed Martin, JPL and NASA will perform checkout and calibrations on the spacecraft, and make the first of several trajectory control maneuvers to maintain a course to Mars. Throughout Phoenix's cruise to the red planet, the team will perform round the clock monitoring of the spacecraft, and will maintain command and control of the spacecraft during its entire mission. The team will also work hand-in-hand with the Science Operation Center based at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

"Landing on Mars is the most challenging critical event we execute in planetary exploration," said Tim Gasparrini, deputy program manager for Phoenix entry, decent and landing at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company. "Now that we are safely on the way to Mars, our entry, decent and landing team will draw upon our decades of experience in exploring the universe and focus its energy on a successful landing and surface science operations."

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NASA Sends Robotic Lander In Search Of Water And Life On Mars
Washington (AFP) Aug 04, 2007
A US space probe embarked Saturday on a 10 month journey to Mars, where it will dig through Martian soil in a search for signs of life in a frigid region of the Red Planet. The Phoenix Mars Lander separated from a Delta II rocket after blasting off into the dark sky at 5:36 am (0936 GMT) from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Powered by solar panels, Phoenix, whose launch was delayed by one day following bad weather, is scheduled to land on Mars on May 25, 2008, after traveling 680 million kilometers (422 million miles) through space.

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