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08-May-07 | Phoenix arrives in Florida

Phoenix, NASA’s next mission to Mars, arrived in Florida on Monday, 7 May, aboard an Air Force C-17 Globemaster III. It was then trucked to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility for pre-launch processing. Phoenix is slated to launch aboard a three-stage Delta II in August, with arrival at Mars in May 2008. From a site near the Martian north pole, Phoenix will dig in the soil in search of water ice and organic compounds. It is a highly simplified mission with a single goal: to seek evidence that Mars is, or was in the past, capable of sustaining life.

Built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems and managed by JPL, the mission’s Principal Investigator is Dr. Peter H. Smith of the University of Arizona. The name comes not from the capital city of Arizona, but rather from the fact that the spacecraft “arose from the ashes” of the Mars Surveyor 2001 lander, a mission that was cancelled following the loss of Mars Polar Lander (which launched on Delta 265). Unlike the airbag landing system pioneered by Mars Pathfinder in 1997 and proven by the Mars Exploration Rovers in 2004, due to its larger size Phoenix uses landing gear and a descent engine, like Surveyor in the 1960s and Viking in the 1970s. It should be noted that this system, along with a lack of end-to-end integration testing, led to MPL’s loss in 1999: landing gear deployment jolted accelerometers and caused the spacecraft to believe it had landed, shutting down its descent engine. The investigation board recommended sweeping management changes; Phoenix will be the acid test of their effectiveness.

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