Phoenix will rise from the dust. Kinda.

By Phil Plait | May 7, 2008 5:00 pm

On May 25th of this year, the Mars probe Phoenix will land on the red planet. This interplanetary lab may not rove about the surface like Spirit and Opportunity, but it is loaded with experiments to test the polar region of Mars to see if life ever arose there.

The landing site was chosen to be as boring as possible; they want the thing to land safely, and that means a wide, flat area. The chosen site really is dull, but happily Emily found something interesting to say about it: it sports dust devils. And she has a very cool image to back it up.

I’ll be writing more about Phoenix as landing time approaches. Stay Tuned, but check with Emily’s blog to get details more often. This is her territory more than mine.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, NASA, Science

Comments (11)

  1. Quiet Desperation

    test the polar region of Mars to see if life ever arose there.

    Or if there’s any there now. :-D

    Now you know I’m no woo woo, but there are some… interesting orbital images around and about the polar area. Organic looking, like fields of something microscopic reigning unopposed in their environment, but I know they are probably natural formations (caused by freeze/thaw cycles perhaps) until any evidence says otherwise.

    If I get bored later I’ll link to a few of the most interesting images on the MSS site.

  2. Guy Mac

    Hi Phil. Phoenix simply cannot tell if life could have ever existed there. It could tell you if some of the conditions and chemicals necessary for life (as we know it) currently exist in the top meter of the soil.

  3. Michael Lonergan

    What is the point of sending these multi-hundreds of million dollar probes to places that are about as exciting as Kansas on a hot summer day? At some point, they are going to have to get to the more interesting places, that will probably be harder to get at. Should they not be developing the technology to do this. Good God, how do they ever expect to ever get a man to Mars if they can’t get a comparatively simple unmanned probe there?

  4. Bad Reader Eric

    Here’s a really nice “video” (it’s really a gif of the images that it took in 9 minutes)

    of a dust devil on Mars. It was taken by Spirit.

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fe/Marsdustdevil2.gif

  5. Gavin Mendeck

    Pretty much every Mars lander to date has gone to boring places, at least, from a topographic perspective. There are some amazing features on Mars, but the ballistic cannonball-style atmospheric entry of the recent Mars landers means their landing ellipse is typically 100 km long. The engineers and scientists sure don’t want to hit a canyon wall or a mountain or a huge crater rim. So the landing ellipse has to be positioned across the landscape to avoid hitting such interesting and dramatic features.

    Another future Mars mission, the Mars Science Laboratory, is set to launch next year and is going to come in guided instead of like a cannonball. It’s center of mass is off to one side, like the Apollo return capsules of the 1960s, to provide enough lift for a guided entry. It’ll use that lift for two things. One, to pull out of its dive and fly horizontal to the surface for hundreds of kilometers as it buys more time to slow down in the thin Martian atmosphere. And two, to reduce its landing ellipse size to 25 km long. The scientists are very excited as this will let them land closer to interesting places. The MSL rover should be able to drive far enough to visit any topographically challenging points of interest, if they’re close enough to the ellipse.

    Interestingly enough, at one point Phoenix was also going to use lift to reduce its ellipse size too, but the lander was originally built almost ten years ago for another mission and didn’t have much lift or enough assurance that it could safely control the direction of that lift during entry. Regardless, I’m looking forward to the first pictures on the ground above the Arctic Circle on Mars! Hopefully we can get a few soon after landing.

  6. Chapio

    I really do hope that Phoenix lands safely. They are doing a risky sort of landing correct? I know it’s not using airbags but using thrusters like they did during the Viking missions? Why did they decide to do that instead of using the more reliable method of air bags? Was it just too big?

  7. BigBob

    We’ve been looking forward to this since August when the family stood in Jetty Park and watched the Phoenix launch. Our *names* were onboard for goodness sake! When Brits book a holiday in Florida, you just have to hope that a launch will coincide with your visit. Couldn’t believe our luck when STS-118 *and* Phoenix both slid right into our window.
    So I’ll be manning the PC here when Phoenix lands at approx 00:36 BST (as it’s now summer time) on the 26th. Bring on the Phoenix coverage!
    Bob(Big)

  8. Fer

    You’re right Phil… that place is somewhat boring. I’m still waiting that NASA send a probe to take photos in Valles Marineris, or Olympus Mons (Like in the documentary Cosmos, where Carl Sagan does a imaginary flyby in Valles Marineris.)

    But hey, it’s on Mars :)

    Aslo, it coincides with the May Revolution, a national holiday here on Argentina.

  9. tom

    The neat thing about this landing is that it will be determining the composition of soil and ice formation in a perma frost like region. It is the first scout mission to study the history of water on this neibhoring planet.

    Check out the website and see what is hoped to happen before judging whether is a boring place or not. ;) I know it would be more exciting to send a creationist but there just wasn’t enough money to send the prez up.

  10. Quiet Desperation

    At some point, they are going to have to get to the more interesting places

    We’ve had probes everywhere but Pluto, and that one is on its way. We’ve even landed on Titan.

    What do you suggest, oh so jaded one?

    Here’s an interesting spot on Mars, especially down near the bottom.

    http://www.msss.com/moc_gallery/r03_r09/full_jpg_non_map/R08/R0801745.jpg

    I like the idea of a dirigible probe that can reposition itself over much further distances than a rover.

  11. I can suggest some places to visit.

    The “ice giants” (Uranus and Neptune) could really use orbiter exploration.
    An array of atmospheric probes into Jupiter and/or Saturn to get accurate in situ data on composition and other properties
    Venusian cloud explorer
    Enceladan and Titanian orbiters
    Europa mission
    Heck, a dedicate Rings Explorer for Saturn, perhaps using the “skipper” model suggested a few times in the community
    A small fleet of cheaper, no-frills gravity field explorers could do a lot to help us out.
    Magnetosphere explorer for Jupiter (in situ or remote)

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