Mars Phoenix Hopes to Avoid Fiery Landing

In less than two hours (just before 8pm), NASA’s next Mars space mission will land on the rust colored planet.

The Mars Phoenix mission emerged out of the ashes of the failed 1999 Mars Polar Lander Mission, but scientists are confident that the mistakes that doomed the previous lander will not be repeated.

And, to clarify, there is no cool rover in this mission. Instead, scientists have given up breadth for depth. The lander will stay in one spot but has a digging arm and a bunch of chemistry experiments to see if there is any water or organic molecules on Mars.

The Viking missions did similar experiments in the 1970s, but we’ve learned a few things about Mars since then and hope to get better results by asking smarter questions.

Another key element of the Phoenix mission will be a suite of weather instruments made in Canada. Among them is a LIDAR, basically a laser that shoots up into the clouds to see what kind of light bounces back into its telescope. LIDAR is commonly used in the Arctic and Australia, but the team of Canada scientists that built it say this is the first time LIDAR has been used on another planet.

I profiled the Canadian weather instrument package and LIDAR for an article for Innovation Canada, but website overhauls might prevent it from hitting the web in time for the landing.

Personally, I will be on the edge of my seat until we get the first data back from Mars (there’s a 15 minutes lag time, so expect it around 8:10PM EDT). Mars was what got me inspired in science and science writing back in 1997 with Pathfinder and its little rover Sojourner. In 1999, I was very excited to be seeing Mars again and was sorely disappointed with the loss.

I hope we have learned from 1999, and get it right this time. It would be a great early birthday present (my birthday is May 29th).

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