NASA says UA-assisted mission will land on Mars
The stuff of dreams will once again become reality on December 3 when the Mars Polar Lander, aided by a number of UA-designed instruments, lands on the Martian south pole.
NASA announced yesterday that the Mars Polar Lander - the first craft to hit Martian soil since the 1997 Pathfinder mission - will touch down on a rectangular strip of smooth terrain at the northern edge of the planet's south pole.
The Pathfinder mission set the standard for efficiency in space exploration and sparked the imaginations of scientists across the world.
"I'm very happy with the site - it looks safe, and safety is everyone's overriding concern," said Peter Smith, an associate research scientist at the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.
Aided by colleagues at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Aeronomy, Smith helped design the stereoscopic imager and Robotic Arm Camera for the Mars Polar Lander. Previously, Smith also led the team that developed the Imager for Mars Pathfinder.
William Boynton, a professor at the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, is co-investigator on the team behind the UA-designed Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer, or TEGA project, also aboard the Mars Polar Lander.
"I was very excited that the site has been chosen," Boynton said. "We've been very busy in planning for the event, and we're still working hard to make sure we're ready."
The Mars Polar Lander was launched on Jan. 3. NASA chose the new landing site based on data obtained from the Mars Global Surveyor currently orbiting the planet.
Smith said that prior to deploying the Mars Global Surveyor, scientists only had the images of Mars that were obtained during the Viking and Mariner 9 missions of the 1970's.
"We were hopeful that we could land just about anywhere," Smith said.
That was until the Mars Global Surveyor revealed a more challenging landscape than was observed in the 1970's.
"We were kind of appalled to see just how torturous this could be," Smith said.
The more detailed data obtained from the Mars Global Surveyor has allowed scientists to pick a landing site that is both safe and suitable for conducting specific types of scientific experiments.
The Mars Pathfinder mission explored a rocky region of Mars known as Ares Vallis. This time around, scientists will get a closer look at Mars' mysterious southern polar region.
"It will be nothing like what we saw before," Smith said. "It will be more like the Arctic tundra in winter."
The landing zone is located within a larger region of mysterious, layered terrain which scientists believe contains a history of climate changes on Mars.
"Hopefully, we'll find something interesting," he added.
Millions of years ago, vast quantities of water carved the Martian landscape into the barren terrain we see today. Having answered the question of whether water ever existed on Mars, scientists are now trying to determine where it all went.
"We think it chemically combined into the surface," Smith said.
The Martian polar regions are of particular interest, because it is believed that there is water in the atmosphere and trapped in the soil as ice.
To determine the presence and extent of water in the soil, the robotic arm will collect samples and place them in the TEGA. Inside, a series of tiny laser ovens will then heat the soil and analyze any gases that are released as a result.
In preparation for the upcoming landing, Boyton said that his team has begun testing a model of the TEGA using a variety of different geologic materials.
Smith said that the stereoscopic imager and Robotic Arm Camera have already undergone one in-flight test with another scheduled within the next few weeks.
These routine system checks are important, but the real test will come when the vehicle lands. While there are relatively few things that can go wrong during cruise, Smith said that landings tend to be a bit more problematic.
"After 11 months of cruise, it all comes down to two minutes," Smith said.