Science Team Preps for Landing
Hi, I'm Dr. Leslie Tamppari, the Phoenix Project Scientist. I'm based out of JPL, but I'm currently in Tucson for the summer to participate in the Phoenix mission operations, which are being conducted from the University of Arizona. As Project Scientist, my job is to lead the science team on behalf of the Principle Investigator, the lead of the mission. It is also my responsibility to ensure the scientific integrity of the mission. This means that on a day-to-day basis, I participate in the engineering aspects of the mission weighing in on design choices and other decisions that could affect science.
This past Sunday, my husband, my 10-week old daughter, and I just moved into our summer accommodations and I began work on Monday. In fact, Monday was my first day back from maternity leave! It was hard to come back the first day and leave my daughter for more than 2 hours since she was born. But, it is also very exciting to be back and preparing for the Phoenix landing and science operations. Most of the science team has arrived in Tucson for the summer and it is good to see my colleagues and friends again. This summer is the pay-off after 5 years of hard work!
The science team has all arrived a week ahead of landing since we had a science team meeting and are having a lot of training sessions to prepare ourselves for operating the spacecraft and interpreting the data. We've been discussing how best to take and analyze our data, how we might divide up the digging area to accomplish different goals, what it might take to convince ourselves that we have hit the ice layer we are searching for, what our strategies are for searching for organics, how best to use the instruments, and how to convey our results to the public.
While most of us are not involved in the flying of the spacecraft or the landing events, we are all very interested in news from JPL of how it's going. Earlier this week we heard that the current prediction of our most likely landing location is only a few hundred meters from our center target location! That's extremely close; we have a landing ellipse size – the area in which we'll land to 99 percent probability - of more than 100 km. I'm sure as Sunday gets nearer, we'll start to get more and more nervous. We all understand that landing safely on Mars is one of the most challenging parts of our mission. We also know that only 5 previous Mars spacecraft have landed successfully. However, we've done as much testing as we possibly could. (Play landing animation
Once we land safely on the surface, we spend the first week or so deploying instruments and checking everything out. We end this phase, called the characterization phase, by acquiring the first Martian sample and putting it into the TEGA instrument. TEGA, the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer, will bake the sample and "evolve" out the gases. This is similar to what happens when you bake brownies. You can smell them when you come in the door because of the gases that come out during baking. We study those gases and the temperatures at which they evolved to identify what that material in the oven is. This is the instrument that has the ability to detect organics - the building blocks for life. In terms of trying to understand if the place Phoenix lands is a place that would be conducive to life (recall we cannot detect life), knowing if organics can survive the Mars environment, whether they are associated with life or not, is very important. If the TEGA instrument detects organics, the challenge will be proving that they have come from Mars and are not something that we brought along with us. We spent a lot of effort to ensure there were no live organisms on the spacecraft (which are made of organics) and to characterize such things as cleaning solutions that also contain organics so that we know their signature. So, TEGA is likely to see those kinds of organics that we know are there, but if we saw different kinds of organics in large quantities, we might be able to determine that they are from Mars. That would be a very major discovery! However, it will be difficult and we will have to examine the data very carefully before we come to that conclusion.
To learn more about the spacecraft and the mission, check out the following sites:
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