A new spacecraft called Phoenix, parsed together largely from leftovers from one mission that failed and another that was canceled, is set for takeoff on Saturday from Cape Canaveral, and it could provide important answers to three burning questions questions: can the Martian arctic support life, what is the history of water at the landing site, and how is the Martian climate affected by polar dynamics?
To answer these questions, Phoenix uses some of the most sophisticated and advanced technology ever sent to Mars. A robust robotic arm built by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory acts as a trenching tool that can dig down half a meter of ice into the dirt--far lower than the few centimeters of previous missions--and a grinding tool that can penetrate even superhard ice.
On the deck, miniature ovens and a mass spectrometer, built by the University of Arizona and University of Texas-Dallas, will provide chemical analysis of trace matter. A chemistry lab-in-a-box, assembled by JPL, will characterize the soil and ice chemistry. Imaging systems, designed by the University of Arizona, University of Neuchatel (Switzerland) providing an atomic force microscope that can see details as small as 200 nanometers--one-hundredth the diameter of a human hair; Max Planck Institute (Germany) and Malin Space Science Systems, will provide an unprecedented view of Mars—spanning 12 powers of 10 in scale. The Canadian Space Agency will deliver a meteorological station, the most advanced weather station yet sent to Mars, marking the first significant involvement of Canada in a mission.
The microscopes are capable of revealing details of soil structure never even glimpsed before, which may help bring to light important details about the past geology and climate of the planet.
If there are organic chemicals lurking in that
ice, Phoenix could discover their presence on for the first time
and learn a bit about the details of their composition using the
Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer, or TEGA, a combination
high-temperature furnace and mass spectrometer instrument that
scientists will use to analyze martian ice and soil samples. The
robotic arm will deliver samples to a hopper designed to feed a small
amount of soil and ice into eight tiny ovens about the size of an ink
cartridge in a ballpoint pen. Each of these ovens will be used only
once to analyze eight unique ice and soil samples.
Once a sample is successfully received and sealed in an oven, the temperature is slowly increased at a constant rate, and the power required for heating is carefully and continuously monitored. This process, called scanning calorimetry, shows the transitions from solid to liquid to gas of the different materials in the sample: important information needed by scientists to understand the chemical character of the soil and ice.
With these precise measurement capabilities, scientists will be able to determine ratios of various isotopes of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen, providing clues to origin of the volatile molecules, and possibly, biological processes that occurred in the past.
Organic molecules--any compounds containing carbon--constantly rain down on Mars, as they do on Earth, from meteors burning up in the atmosphere, which is why scientists were so startled when Viking didn't find any. A new analysis last year suggests that that failure may have been because the Viking instrument didn't heat its samples enough to detect certain kinds of "refractory" organics that might be there.
"If organics are present, we'll detect them," says Bill Boynton, a biochemist at the University of Arizona who led the team that developed the TEGA instrument. It works by putting a tiny scoop of soil into a chamber, sealing it shut, and then slowly heating it and measuring the vapors given off as the temperature rises all the way to 1,000 ºC.
The University of Arizona will also host the Phoenix Mission's Science Operations Center (SOC) in its Tucson facility.
From the SOC, the Phoenix science and engineering teams will command the lander once it is safely landed on Mars, and also, receive data as it is transmitted directly to Earth. A payload interoperability test bed (PIT) will be located with the SOC to verify an optimal integration of Phoenix's complex scientific instruments. Working together, the SOC and PIT will ensure a seamless scientific and engineering process—from science goal to instrument commands to down-linked and analyzed data.
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