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Mars Phoenix Mission HEADS for Polar Regions of Mars

NASA's Successful Launch for Mars Phoenix
NASA's Successful Launch for Mars Phoenix

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - 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.  The spacecraft carried camera pointing mechanisms originally designed by engineers at Rocketstar Robotics back in the late 1990's when the company was known as American Technology Consortium.  The mechanisms are similar to those also provided by ATC for the Mars Pathfinder and Mars Polar Lander Programs.

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.

Stereo Surface Imager for Mars Phoenix
The two lens SSI is a higher resolution upgrade of the imager
used for Mars Pathfinder, which returned more than 17,000
stereo images. One of the Camera Pointing Mechanisms
can be seen extending from the left of the SSI.
Image Credit: SSI Team, University of Arizona.

The Camera Pointing Mechanisms are used to position the Surface Stereo Imager (SSI).  SSI will serve as Phoenix's "eyes" for the mission, providing high-resolution, stereo, panoramic images of the Martian arctic. Using an advanced optical system, SSI will survey the arctic landing site for geological context, provide range maps in support of digging operations, and make atmospheric dust and cloud measurements.

Situated atop an extended mast, SSI will provide images at a height two meters above the ground, roughly the height of a tall person. SSI simulates the human eye with its two optical lens system that will give three-dimensional views of the arctic plains. The instrument will also simulate the resolution of human eyesight using a charged-coupled device that produces high density 1024 x 1024 pixel images. But SSI exceeds the capabilities of the human eye by using optical and infrared filters, allowing multi-spectral imaging at 12 wavelengths of geological interest and atmospheric interest.

Looking downward, stereo data from SSI will support robotic arm operations by producing digital elevation models of the surrounding terrain. With these data, scientists and engineers will have three-dimensional virtual views of the digging area. Along with data from the TEGA and the MECA, scientists will use the three-dimensional views to better understand the geomorphology and mineralogy of the site. Engineers will also use these three-dimensional views to command the trenching operations of the robotic arm. SSI will also be used to provide multi-spectral images of samples delivered to the lander deck to support results from the other scientific instruments.

Looking upward, SSI will be used to estimate the optical properties of the martian atmosphere around the landing site. Using narrow-band imaging of the Sun, the imager will estimate density of atmospheric dust, optical depth of airborne aerosols, and abundance of atmospheric water vapor. SSI will also look at the lander itself to assess the amount of wind-blown dust deposited on spacecraft. Deposition rates provide important information for scientists to understand erosional and atmospheric processes, but are critical for engineers who are concerned about the amount of deposited dust on the solar panels and associated power degradation.

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.

Additional information on Phoenix is available online at:

NASA's Stardust Findings May Alter View of Comet Formation

Scientists Examine Stardust Samples
Scientists astounded by Stardust

Rocketstar Robotics, Camarillo - Samples from comet Wild 2 have surprised scientists, indicating the formation of at least some comets may have included materials ejected by the early sun to the far reaches of the solar system.

Scientists have found minerals formed near the sun or other stars in the samples returned to Earth by NASA's Stardust spacecraft in January. The findings suggest materials from the center of the solar system could have traveled to the outer reaches where comets formed. This may alter the way scientists view the formation and composition of comets.

"The interesting thing is we are finding these high-temperature minerals in materials from the coldest place in the solar system," said Donald Brownlee, Stardust principal investigator from the University of Washington, Seattle.

Scientists have long thought of comets as cold, billowing clouds of ice, dust and gases formed on the edges of the solar system. But comets may not be so simple or similar. They may prove to be diverse bodies with complex histories. Comet Wild 2 seems to have had a more complex history than thought.

"We have found very high-temperature minerals, which supports a particular model where strong bipolar jets coming out of the early sun propelled material formed near to the sun outward to the outer reaches of the solar system," said Michael Zolensky, Stardust curator and co-investigator at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston. "It seems that comets are not composed entirely of volatile rich materials but rather are a mixture of materials formed at all temperature ranges, at places very near the early sun and at places very remote from it."

One mineral found in the material brought back by Stardust is olivine, a primary component of the green sand found on some Hawaiian beaches. It is among the most common minerals in the universe, but scientists were surprised to find it in cometary dust.

Olivine is a compound of iron, magnesium and other elements. The Stardust sample is primarily magnesium. Along with olivine, the dust from Wild 2 contains high-temperature minerals rich in calcium, aluminum and titanium.

Stardust passed within 149 miles of comet Wild 2 in January 2004, trapping particles from the comet in an exposed gel. Its return capsule parachuted to the Utah desert on Jan. 15. The science canister with the Wild 2 sample arrived at Johnson on Jan. 17. Samples have been distributed to approximately 150 scientists for study.

"The collection of cometary particles is greater than we ever expected," said Stardust Deputy Principal Investigator Peter Tsou of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "The collection includes about two dozen large tracks visible to the unaided eye."

The grains are tiny, most smaller than a hair's width. Thousands of them appear to be embedded in the glass-like aerogel. A single grain of 10 microns, only one-hundredth of a millimeter (.0004 inches), can be sliced into hundreds of samples for scientists.

In addition to cometary particles, Stardust gathered interstellar dust samples during its seven-year journey. The team at Johnson's curatorial facility hopes to begin detailed scanning of the interstellar tray within a month. They will initiate the Stardust at Home project. It will enable volunteers from the public to help scientists locate particles.

After registering, Stardust at Home participants may download a virtual microscope. The microscope will connect to a server and download "focus movies." The movies are images of the Stardust Interstellar Dust Collector from an automated microscope at the Cosmic Dust Lab at Johnson. Participants will search each field for interstellar dust impacts.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Stardust mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, developed and operated the spacecraft.

Engineers currently at Rocketstar Robotics were responsible for the design of transmission components used in the Stardust Scan Mirror system.

Stardust science team members presented their first findings this week at the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in League City, Texas.

For more information about Stardust on the Web, visit: