In May 2008, the progeny of two promising U.S. missions to Mars will deploy
a lander to the water-ice-rich northern polar region, dig with a robotic arm
into arctic terrain for clues on the history of water, and search for
environments suitable for microbes.

NASA today announced that it has selected the University of Arizona
“Phoenix” mission for launch in 2007 as what is hoped will be the first in
a new line of smaller competed “Scout” missions in the agency’s Mars
Exploration Program.

Peter H. Smith of the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory heads the Phoenix
mission, named for the mythological bird that is repeatedly reborn of ashes.
The $325 million NASA award is more than six times larger than any other
single research grant in UA history. The Phoenix mission Science Operations
Center will be located in Tucson. Two instruments will be built at the UA,
so about $50 million will remain at the university.

“The selection of Phoenix completes almost two years of intense competition
with other institutions,” Smith said. “I am overjoyed that we can now begin
the real work that will lead to a successful mission to Mars. Our large
public outreach and educational programs will be nationwide, but activities
will especially involve the Tucson community. Our doors will be open to the
public throughout the development and flight of the Phoenix bird.”

Phoenix is a partnership between universities, NASA centers, and the
aerospace industry. The science instruments and operations will be a UA
responsibility. The NASA Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., will manage
the project and provide mission design. Lockheed Martin in Denver will build
and test the spacecraft. Canadian partners will provide the meteorological
instrumentation, including an innovative laser-based sensor.

Phoenix has the scientific capability “to change our thinking about the
origins of life on other worlds,” Smith said. “Even though the northern
plains are thought to be too cold now for water to exist as a liquid,
periodic variations in the martian orbit allow a warmer climate to develop
every 50,000 years. During these periods the ice can melt, dormant organisms
could come back to life, (if there are indeed any), and evolution can
proceed. Our mission will verify whether the northern plains are indeed a
last viable habitat on Mars.”

LPL Director Michael J. Drake said, “Phoenix has the potential to be the
smoking gun for the evolution of life elsewhere in the universe. While it
will not directly seek to detect life, it will look for complex organic
molecules. If they are there, they are hinting strongly at present or past

“Detection of complex organics will drive all future Mars exploration, and
the Lunar and Planetary Lab will play a prominent role. The discovery that
we are not alone in the universe, that science fiction of Star Trek may in
fact be science fact, will change the way humanity thinks about itself. The
existence of even primitive life forms on Mars raises the probability of
advanced life elsewhere, and emphasizes our commonality rather than our

“The selection of Phoenix as the first Mars Scout mission is a tribute to
the extraordinary talents and efforts of Peter Smith, William Boynton, and
the entire team at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, and to the high
quality of our partners at JPL and Lockheed Martin,” Drake said. “This
mission, like few others, has the potential to change the way humanity
thinks about itself.”

Drake predicts that the Phoenix project will have a $120 million economic
impact on Tucson during the next few years. “No previous UA project has had
the economic impact on Tucson that this mission will have,” he said.
“People, especially legislators, usually don’t think about the economic
impact of the university on our city and state. They regard the university
as a consumer of tax dollars rather than a generator of net wealth. But even
before the Phoenix mission, for the state’s annual investment of $2.5
million in the Lunar and Planetary Lab, the state realized an annual return
of $15 million in federal research dollars.”

UA Vice President for Research Richard Powell said, “This is a tremendous
accomplishment for the faculty and students of our Lunar and Planetary
Laboratory. Winning this major competition shows the confidence NASA has in
the University of Arizona’s scientific capabilities and ability to manage
large, critical programs. Very few academic institutions can design,
construct, and deliver space-qualified technology on time and within budget.
We are proud to have some of the world’s top scientists in this field at the
University of Arizona and are excited about the unique educational
experience our students will receive while working on this project.”

“The Lunar and Planetary Laboratory has a distinguished track record of
planetary exploration,” said College of Science Dean Joaquin Ruiz. “Peter
Smith, and William Boynton have an enviable record of successful Mars
mission instruments. They delivered information that made us re-think the
evolution of the red planet. NASA’s selection of our Lunar and Planetary
Laboratory for this important mission is a further indication of the
extraordinary research done by our institution in planetary sciences.”.


The lander for Phoenix was built and being tested to fly as part of the 2001
Mars Surveyor Program, but the program was canceled after the Mars Polar
Lander was lost upon landing near Mars’ south pole in December 1999. Since
then, the 2001 lander has been stored in a clean room at Lockheed Martin in
Denver, managed by NASA’s new Mars Exploration Program as a flight asset.

Renamed Phoenix, it will carry improved versions of UA panoramic cameras and
a thermal evolved gas analyzer (TEGA) from the ill-fated Mars Polar Lander,
as well as experiments that had been built and delivered for the 2001 Mars
Surveyor Program, including a Jet Propulsion Laboratory trench-digging robot
arm and a chemistry-microscopy instrument (MECA).

“The science instruments that Phoenix brings to Mars are chosen for their
ability to analyze the ice and soils of the arctic region,” Smith said.

The mission has two goals. One is to study the geologic history of water,
the key to unlocking the story of past climate change. Two is to search for
evidence of a habitable zone that may exist in the ice-soil boundary, the
“biological paydirt.”

The science payload includes a descent imager, stereo panoramic camera,
robotic arm, thermal evolved gas analyzer, mass spectrometer, optical and
atomic force microscopes, electrical and thermal sensors, a wet chemistry
laboratory for soil analysis, and a suite of meteorological instruments that
includes a lase-based system for studying atmospheric phenomena including
dust devils.

“No spacecraft has ever returned data from either polar region, yet they are
known from remote sensing to be critical to the seasonal transport of water
and carbon dioxide,” Smith said.

There may be as much as 80 percent by volume water ice within a half-meter
(20 inches) beneath the surface at Mars’ north polar region, UA planetary
scientist William Boynton and colleagues predict based on results from their
Gamma Ray Spectrometer (GRS) experiment on Mars Odyssey. Boynton heads the
GRS experiment. The GRS team detected large amounts of water ice at Mars’
circumpolar regions early in 2002, first at the southern pole and later the
northern as the carbon dioxide seasonal ice layer evaporated.

“I am very excited about landing in the ice-rich region we discovered with
the GRS,” Boynton said. “We think the ice in this region might have been
deposited in the form of snow in the recent past when Mars was a lot wetter
than it is now. The Phoenix mission should help us understand exactly how
the ice was deposited in the polar regions.”

Boynton heads one of the major science instruments on Phoenix, the thermal
evolved gas analyzer (TEGA).

“Being a part of the Mars Polar Lander mission was a tremendous experience,
but also an equally large disappointment when it crashed,” Boynton said. His
team initially designed, developed and built TEGA for the Mars Polar Lander.
“It is great to get a second chance to actually land on the surface and dig
down to where the interesting action might be beneath the surface.”

The GRS on Mars Odyssey was a reflight of a similar instrument that was on
another mission that failed, Mars Observer, in 1993. Results from the second
chance to fly the GRS “were far more spectacular than anyone would have
imagined,” Boynton said. “I am hopeful that this second chance to fly the
TEGA instruments will similarly provide us with many exciting discoveries
that we cannot even contemplate now.”

Using Earth as an analogy, previous successful missions to Mars landed at
about the latitude of Mexico City (Viking 1 and Mars Pathfinder) or Chicago
(Viking 2). The Phoenix lander targets the northern plains higher than 65
degrees latitude, the latitude of northern Greenland. The proposed landing
longitude is around 240 degrees east, where Boynton’s GRS detected nearly as
strong a signature of water ice as at the exposed arctic ice cap.

“Analyzing volatiles locked in arctic soils and the water chemistry of wet
soils, even at one location, is a giant step toward modeling the weather
processes and climate history of Mars,” Smith said. ‘Volatiles’ include
water, carbonates (limestone), organic material, and other substances that
readily vaporize at temperatures up to 950 degrees Celsius.

And although only a decade ago scientists who confessed they wanted to
search for life on Mars were apt to be censured, recent discoveries have
made the hunt respectable.

“The biggest questions about Mars have to do with life,” Smith said. “Is
there life on Mars, has there ever been life on Mars, and if there is or
was, how does it compare to life on Earth?”

“Microbial colonies can remain dormant for eons, yet survive. Recent work
shows that dormant microbes are activated when water ice melts onto soil
crystals at temperatures as cold as minus 20 degrees Celsius,” he added.

The Phoenix robotic arm will scoop up martian soil samples and deliver them
for heating into TEGA’s tiny ovens so team members can measure how much
water vapor and carbon dioxide gas are given off, how much water ice the
samples contain, and what minerals are present that may have formed during a
wetter, warmer past climate. TEGA will also measure any organic volatiles.

Using another instrument, MECA, researchers will examine soil particles as
small as 16 microns across. They will measure electrical and thermal
conductivity of soil particles using a probe on the robotic arm scoop.
One of the most interesting experiments is the wet chemistry laboratory,
Smith said.

“We plan to scoop up some soil, put it in a cell, add water, shake it up,
and measure the impurities dissolved in the water that have leached out from
the soil. This is important, because if the soil ever gets wet, we’ll know
if microbes could survive. We’ll know if the wet soil is super acidic or
alkaline and salty, or full of oxidants that can destroy life. We’ll test
the environment that microbes might have had to live and grow in,” Smith


Smith was principal investigator for the successful Imager for Mars
Pathfinder, which took 16,600 images from the surface of Mars during 83 days
in 1997. As a member of the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) science team, he
will help operate two rovers on the surface of Mars early next year. Smith
is also part of Britain’s Beagle2 project on the Mars Express mission
launched last June. He is the project manager and a co-investigator for UA
planetary scientist Alfred McEwen’s HiRISE high resolution imaging system
that will orbit Mars starting in 2006. He also is co-investigator on UA
planetary scientist Martin Tomasko’s DISR, a descent imager on the
Cassini-Huygens mission that will parachute a probe into the dense
atmosphere of Titan in January 2005.

Co-investigators include:

  • * Raymond Arvidson, Washington University
  • * Diana Blaney, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • * William Boynton, University of Arizona
  • * Allan Carswell, Optech Inc., Canada
  • * David Catling, University of Washington
  • * Benton Clark, Lockheed Martin Astronautics
  • * Eric de Jong, Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • * Michael Hecht, Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • * John Hoffman, University of Texas at Dallas
  • * Horst Keller, Max-Planck-Institut fur Aeronomie, Germany
  • * Samuel Kounaves, Tufts University
  • * Mark Lemmon, Texas A & M University
  • * Michael Malin, Malin Space Science Systems
  • * Wojciech Markiewicz, Max-Planck-Institut fur Aeronomie, Germany
  • * John Marshall, SETI Institute
  • * Christopher McKay, NASA Ames Research Center
  • * Michael Mellon, University of Chicago
  • * Douglas Ming, NASA Johnson Space Center
  • * Richard Morris, Johnson Space Center
  • * Nilton Renno, University of Michigan
  • * Urs Staufer, University of Neuchatel, Switzerland
  • * Carol Stoker, Ames Research Center
  • * Leslie Temppari, Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • * Aaron Zent, Ames Research Center

Downloadable Photos Links on
Phoenix lander, Peter Smith

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