NASA has a new spacecraft operating on the surface of Mars. The Phoenix Mars Lander, built by Lockheed Martin, navigated a dramatic descent through the planet’s atmosphere, positioning Phoenix to dig down and touch the planet’s subsurface ice. Onboard commands fired six separation nuts and jettisoned the cruise stage of the spacecraft while it was 635 miles away from the surface. That started a series of events that took the spacecraft through six different configurations and from a speed of 12500 mph to a gentle touchdown on the surface. The data signal confirming the spacecraft had successfully landed was received on Earth.
Flight operations since launch and through landing were performed by a tight-knit team in Pagsadena, CA and Denver, CO. Mission management and navigation were handled by JPL and spacecraft operations were performed by Lockheed Martin. The joint team stayed in daily contact with the spacecraft through the Deep Space Network since launch on August 4, 2007. After landing, the spacecraft waited 20 minutes for dust to settle before it deployed its stereo camera, meteorology mast, robotic arm bio-barrier bag and, most importantly, its twin solar arrays. The camera took images of each 6' 10" solar array, which confirmed both were fully deployed, allowing the spacecraft to generate its own power. It also took other pictures of a lander’s foot pad and instruments on the lander’s deck. Those images were returned to Earth via the Mars Odyssey orbiter.
The University of Arizona leads this first Mars Scout mission from its Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson. Most of the scientific study for the mission will be performed out of the university’s Science Operations Center. The NASA mission, valued at $420 M, includes the spacecraft development, science instruments, the Delta II launch vehicle, mission operations and science operations.