Arizona Plans First University-led Mars Mission

(U-WIRE) TUCSON, Ariz. — The University of Arizona will be the first university to lead a mission to Mars that will explore the habitability and the history of water on the red planet, a UA senior researcher said at the Arizona Science Center Saturday.

The Phoenix Science Operations Center, located at North Sixth Avenue and East Drachman Street, will serve as mission control to the Phoenix Mars Lander, a research vessel designed to analyze complex organic molecules, soil and ice samples in the arctic plains of Mars, said Peter Smith, the project leader and senior research scientist..

“Once on Mars, the Lander will dig trenches, gather samples but will never bring anything physical back to Earth, it will only send data,” Smith said..

The Phoenix Lander, named after a vessel built for a previous mission that was never flown, is a stationary vessel that will not be able to roam the red planet as the twin rovers do..

“The 2001 Mars Polar Lander crashed on Mars, and we inherited its sister craft,” Smith said. “Since no one knew why it crashed at the time, the Lander we inherited was never flown.”.

The project received its name because it had risen from the ashes, Smith said.

The Phoenix Lander will use jet thrusters to land in a target area the size of the state of Arizona selected from data collected by the Mars Odyssey orbiter, evincing ice-rich soil near the surface, Smith said.

Jesse Cornia, the mission’s Web developer and public outreach consultant, said a mock deck, designed to simulate the surface of Mars, has been built at the Phoenix Science Operations Center.
“It has to look like Mars, and we’ve transported buckets of soil to make the environment as real as possible,” Cornia said.

All the instruments that the Lander will be using will first be tested in the simulated environment, and the scientists who will be coordinating the mission will attempt to operate the machinery without having seen the deck, Cornia said.

The spacecraft was built by Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense contractor, and carries several technological instruments, the most important of which is the robotic arm that will dig the trenches and gather soil and ice samples.

“The arm will move just like a human arm moves,” Smith said.
The arm was built the Jet Propulsion Lab and has a UA-built camera mounted on to it just above the scoop.

A Surface Stereo Imager, also built by the UA, will serve as Phoenix’s eyes for the mission, providing high-resolution, stereoscopic, panoramic images of the Martian arctic, according to the mission’s Web site.

The Phoenix Lander takes flight August 2007 from the Kennedy Space Center and is expected to land on Mars nine months later, where it will attempt to gather clues about the history of water on the planet and its potential for habitability, Smith said.
Smith said that NASA selected and endorsed the Phoenix Lander mission because of its low cost.

“The mission cost $385 million, which isn’t that much when you consider that Tucson was going to build a $350 million bridge,” Smith said, referring to Rio Nuevo’s “Rainbow Bridge” project.
UA spokesman Paul Allvin said that the mission will have a tremendous impact on the university.

“This is the first time a space mission will be led by university and it’s time to show NASA and the world what decades of experience can do,” Allvin said.

One man from the 200-person crowd heckled Smith during a question-and-answer period after his presentation in the planetarium.
“God made the Earth, God made the planets, why would he make other planets if we couldn’t live on them?” the heckler said, to which Smith replied, “That’s a good question, you should ask him.”