Mars Landing Challenge -- Big Science Ahead

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Mars Landing Challenge -- Big Science Ahead
05.25.08
 
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Just because we've landed on Mars, it doesn't mean that the challenges are now over.

In fact, there are a lot of things that have to go just right on that first day.

(Peter Smith) I think the biggest challenge we face is the surface of Mars.

Nobody knows what the surface of this arctic region is going to look like

at the level that we're going to be interacting with it.

(Deborah Bass) Right after landing, we've got to make sure that we get our solar panels deployed.

(Joel Krajewski) There's two of them -- one on each side of the lander -- and they open up like a Chinese fan.

That's probably the most critical thing on that day.

Because if we don't have solar arrays, we don't have power; if we don't have power, we don't have a mission.

(Deborah Bass) Also critical are deploying the camera and the robotic arm.

Without the camera, there's no way we can have a quick understanding

of what the environment around us looks like.

And without the robotic arm, we can't start digging for our science samples.

Phoenix is looking for habitats on Mars -- places where life could exist, or could have existed in the past.

We know that life needs three things to exist:

It needs an energy source, like sunlight; it needs water; and it needs organic molecules.

That's molecules that contain carbon, oxygen, hydrogen.

We believe that if they're there, they're likely going to be beneath the ground, and likely to be in ice.

The ice is not at the surface -- it's not this shiny ice skating rink set of ice.

It's gonna be a dirty mess of soil and ice mixed together, kind of like Alaskan permafrost.

(Joel Krajewski) We expect to be able to dig down as deep as about a half a meter, or about a foot and a half.

(Peter Smith) There's gonna be a real gradient and exploration from surface to ice that has never been done before.

(Deborah Bass) That ice is going to be hard as concrete. So getting down to that ice, and getting a sample is going to take some time -- something we don't have a lot of.

(Peter Smith) Time is of the essence when we get to Mars. We only have a few months to do all of the science we want to do.

(Deborah Bass) A point will come in the fall when the sun will permanently set, and there won't be enough solar energy hitting the solar panels to continue to power the lander.

We are, in fact, working against a clock.

As winter advances, the north polar ice cap is growing,

until it gets closer and closer to our landing site -- and eventually, our lander with be completely entombed in ice.

So we face a lot of challenges on the surface of Mars, but the dedication of the team is there, and it's worth it because the discoveries are going to be so amazing.

(Peter Smith) For us scientists, this is the beginning of our chance to really try and understand what the truth -- the scientific truths of the arctic region of Mars are all about.

(Joel Krajewski) We've never dug into ice; we've not had instruments like this on Mars before -- that can detect the organics like these instruments can.

(Peter Smith) What's more thrilling as a nation -- as a world -- than finding another world that perhaps also contains some form of life?

Our mission is just a stepping stone in that ultimate search, but it's an exciting part of the search, because we're going from finding water to finding a habitable zone.

The next step will be to find life.

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