NASA spacecraft to land on Mars
A NASA spacecraft was closing in on Mars for what scientists hope will be the first-ever touchdown near Mars’ North Pole to study whether the permafrost could have supported primitive life.
The time it takes the Phoenix Mars Lander to streak through the atmosphere and set down on the dusty surface has been dubbed “the seven minutes of terror” for good reason. More than half of the world’s attempts to land on Mars have ended in failures.
Phoenix is pre-programmed to plummet through the Red Planet’s atmosphere, and will rely on the intricately choreographed use of its heat shield, parachute and rockets to slow its descent from over 12,000 mph to a 5 mph touchdown. Mission controllers decided late Saturday to skip an opportunity to adjust Phoenix’s flight path since the Lander was well on track for its target landing site.
Nasa has not had a successful soft landing in more than three decades since the twin Viking Landers in 1976. The last time the space agency tried was in 1999 when the Mars Polar Lander angling for the South Pole crashed after prematurely cutting off its engines.
Phoenix was built from a Lander that was scrapped after the Polar Lander disaster. Engineers spent years testing Phoenix to resolve all known problems, but there are no guarantees on landing day.
Launched last summer, Phoenix has travelled 422 million miles over nearly 10 months. Its arrival to the high northern latitudes will be closely watched by a trio of Mars orbiters circling overhead. If successful, it will join the twin Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which have been exploring the equatorial plains since 2004. The $420 million mission is led by the University of Arizona and managed by JPL. Mars and Earth are 170 million miles apart on landing day, which means it will take about 15 minutes for mission control to receive a signal from the Lander that it is safe.