Monday, 26 May 2008

Phoenix on Mars

It's time for the third entry to my blog - not sure if anybody reads it (still nobody has voted in my little poll to the right - oh well!), but I thought I'd update it anyhow. I thought that today I'd write a little about the new space craft that NASA have sent to Mars.

Phoenix was launched back in August 2007 to set off on its journey to the red planet. This journey has been largely trouble-free and uneventful (well, as trouble-free and uneventful as a trip of over 200 million miles can be, which I suppose is a good thing). It landed safely at its destination near the north polar region of Mars on 25th May 2008. Its suitcase was packed with several gadgets and gizmos which Phoenix (sounds more like an Gladiator than a space craft) will use to probe the soil of Mars. As is customary for all space tourists, Phoenix has also taken its camera to Mars and will be sending back regular snapshots of the view to the people of Earth. The main purpose of Phoenix, and probably of any space craft sent there, is to look for signs that Mars can and did (or even better, still does!) support life. It is now widely believed that Mars was once a wet planet. Its oceans have since dried up, but there is still hope that water is present beneath the surface of Mars. Phoenix will use its array of expensive scientific equipment to try to detect this water. If unsuccessful, it is programmed to do a rain dance to see if that helps. Or maybe not. The landing site of Phoenix is the most northerly of any probe to land on Mars. It is in a region known to contain water ice (the bit that looks like snow on pictures of Mars) and is thought to be a likely spot for life to be able to exist.

Just in case there is life on Mars, and a passing alien happens to bump into Phoenix, scientists have very kindly provided Phoenix with a DVD to be given to any curious Martians, or future human visitors, as a gift. This action-packed DVD, with the highly original name The Phoenix DVD, should hopefully play on all Martian DVD players, providing the DVD is region-free. Contained on the DVD are various multimedia snippets related to the role Mars has played in art and literature in culture on Earth, including the text of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds and a copy of the radio broadcast of this story which terrified America. It's not known whether the Tom Cruise film of the story is also included on the DVD. Messages from people of Earth to Martians or any other visitors to Mars are also contained on the DVD, as are the names of a quarter of a million Earthlings. Taking a DVD to Mars isn't a new idea, as both the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which are still roving Mars, also had DVDs with them. But, what will they take next on future missions to Mars??? Blu-ray or HD-DVD? And when will the first branch of Blockbuster open on Mars so Martians can rent out other Earthly masterpieces?

Phoenix's primary mission is expected to last 90 Martian days (sols), which is just over 92 days on Earth. Scientists hope that it will go on to last into Martian winter, where up to three feet of carbon dioxide ice may form at the region of Phoenix's landing. Because of the intense cold on Mars during winter, Phoenix is not expected to make it through the whole season and is likely to give up at some point during winter. If only those scientists had thought to pack an extra pair of socks and a thermal vest! However, 1997's Pathfinder lander and its Sojourner rover lasted longer than expected, and Spirit and Opportunity, which both landed in January 2004 and were expected to last same 90 days as Phoenix, are still going strong(ish), so who knows, Phoenix may exceed expectations again.

On this blog, I'll keep updating any developments and discoveries from the Phoenix mission and one day, when I get around to completing my Missions to Mars 2 page, it'll get a mention on there too!

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