Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Phoenix is landing

New Scientist reports: [edited]

NASA's Phoenix spacecraft will experience a harrowing few minutes on 25 May when it hits Mars's atmosphere and attempts to land safely on the surface – without any airbags to cushion its fall.

Phoenix launched in August 2007 on a mission to Mars's icy north polar region. Changes in the Red Planet's tilt may have allowed the abundant ice there to melt as recently as 100,000 years ago, raising the possibility that microscopic life forms could once have eked out an existence in the region. Life might even be present there now in a dormant state.

The lander will dig down as much as 50 centimetres below the surface, collecting samples of soil and ice to better understand the region's past climate and check for carbon-containing molecules that could be associated with life.

But first, the spacecraft must make it to the surface in one piece. A host of critical manoeuvres have to go off just as planned in order to get the spacecraft safely to the surface, all of them designed to occur automatically. If it is successful, it will be the first probe since the Viking missions more than 30 years ago to land safely without airbags.

If this stuff floats your boat, the rest of the article is excellent.

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