picture of the day
An early image of Mars from the Phoenix
lander. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
(The white object in the distance is the lander parachute.)
May 28, 2008
The Phoenix Awakens
A new robotic platform is now on the surface of Mars
searching for signs of life in the northern latitudes. Will it
find what it seeks?
“Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more!”
William Shakespeare – King Henry V, Act 3. Scene 1
In a bold move that harkens back to the 1970s, NASA has soft-landed a science
station on Mars using retrorocket descent engines. The last successful mission
making use of such technology was the Viking lander/orbiter combination that
placed two spacecraft on the surface of Mars in 1975.
On May 25, 2008, 7:53 PM Eastern Daylight Time, radio signals confirmed that
Phoenix was on the ground at 68 degree N latitude, 233 degrees E longitude. On
Earth, the coordinates would correspond to the Northwest Territories in Canada,
close to the Arctic Ocean.
Launched in August of 2007, the Phoenix mission is so named because it was
rebuilt from the
Mars Surveyor 2001 lander. Since the Phoenix is a mythical bird that rises
from the pyre of its own death, the new name seemed appropriate. Mars Surveyor
2001 was placed in storage after the
Mars Polar Lander failed to return data in 1999. No one is sure what
happened to the Polar Lander, but it is assumed that it disintegrated during the
landing sequence or upon impact. NASA officials decided to mothball the Surveyor
package while they conducted an operational review of their organization and
The Phoenix is designed to sample the Martian soil and determine if there is
water ice just below the rocks and dust in the northern latitudes. According to
most conventional opinions about Mars, it was once a “warm, wet world” although
that was “millions of years ago.” Due to some kind of geological change (or
another unknown agency), Mars became the scorched and disfigured planet that we
see today. However, planetary scientists have not given up hope that water might
remain in the polar regions, frozen in situ for all those millions of
Phoenix will dig down into the soil and then transfer the material to an onboard
oven where it will bake the sample and drive out any volatile compounds. A
spectrographic analyzer will then see if there are any biochemical components
that could indicate the presence of life.
First and foremost will be the attempt at confirming Mars Odyssey’s
discovery that ice might be present in the colder regions near the north
pole. “Discovery” may be stretching the point, however. What Odyssey actually
detected was the signature of hydrogen in the form of neutrons and gamma rays
released by cosmic rays. It is an assumption that the hydrogen is in water
molecules beneath the surface. The hydrogen may have been "implanted"
electrically or molecules other than water were transferred from another
According to the Electric Universe analysis of recent
solar system history, the search for water, especially in the north, could
be a forlorn hope. Forces that are not easy to comprehend have shaped Mars. The
higher latitudes (except for the polar icecap) are several kilometers below the
elevation of the southern hemisphere. As we have discussed in
previous Picture of the Day articles, the reason for the discrepancy is
Electric Discharge Machining (EDM) on a massive scale.
Mars has been the scene of planet-wide cataclysmic destruction. The
Hellas Basin in the south is nine kilometers deep and 2100 kilometers wide.
It is surrounded by a ring of uplifted terrain, similar to ringed structures on
the other planets and moons. The ring is two kilometers high and extends 4000
kilometers from the center of the crater. One puzzling aspect to the giant scar
is that the debris one would expect to have been blasted out of it is missing.
Where did it go? Into space.
In the north are smooth,
dusty plains that extend as far as the eye can see. No mountains, no hills –
nothing to break the monotonous landscape except a few craters and the Tharsis
Montes chain of “volcanoes” that rise up near the edge of the vast polar desert.
It is probable that the event or events responsible for the extant Martian
topography scoured all organic compounds from the planet, vaporized any water
that might have existed there and permanently sterilized the environment with a
highly energetic plasma beam. In that case, water is most likely not
present in any abundance.
By Stephen Smith
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