Podcast: Journey to the Martian North Pole

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Podcast: Journey to the Martian North Pole
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Narrator: A journey to the north pole -- of Mars. I'm Jane Platt with a podcast from JPL – NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. A new NASA spacecraft is all dressed up – with a really cool place to go -- literally. Phoenix Mars Lander will zoom through space and land the middle of next year in the far north part of Mars, the polar region. Joining us is Phoenix Project Scientist Leslie Tamppari of JPL. Welcome, Leslie.

Tamppari: Thank you.

Narrator: Well, we already have four NASA spacecraft at Mars, including the two very long-lived rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. And the European Space Agency has an orbiter as well. So what is Phoenix going to add to this mix, to the fleet?

Tamppari: Phoenix is going to an entirely new region that we've never been to before. We're going to the north polar region between 65 and 72 degrees north. And we'll be able to be in the environment during northern summer when the water icecap is completely exposed and water is coming off the cap, and it's a great place to study the water cycle on Mars. It's also a place where we have surface ice that was discovered by the Odyssey spacecraft, and we'll sample that ice and be able to tell something about the habitability of the environment.

Narrator: Again it's part of the theme of following the water on Mars, where it might have been, where it could be now and where it might be in the future. Just a really brief, thumbnail recap of why we're so interested in water on Mars.

Tamppari: Water is a big mystery on Mars. We think that there was vast floods of water very early in Mars' history, but today we don't see evidence for floods like that, that might happen. So we want to understand the current climate very well so that we can understand what the past climate might have been like. And of course water is important for the life, so understanding where the water is and how it's changed on Mars over its history is very important for understanding if life ever could have arisen on Mars.

Narrator: And this particular region in the far north part of Mars enables you to answer different questions than were possible in the other areas, for example, where Spirit and Opportunity are.

Tamppari: Yes, Spirit and Opportunity are looking for evidence of ancient water, whereas we're looking at the current water. We're looking in an environment where in the last 50,000 to 100,000 years, the environment has changed due to the tilt of the planet changing over that time, and so there might have been times when liquid water could have been standing on the surface for a period of time that might have been conducive to life. So it's very interesting from that standpoint.

Narrator: So Phoenix will carry seven science instruments. Can you explain to us what they will be able to do?

Tamppari: Yes, we have instruments that will be able to gather samples from the surface and analyze those samples onboard the spacecraft. And then we have a very rich weather station that will enable us to understand the local weather in our landing environment. And we have a series of cameras that will allow us to take images from before we land the spacecraft, and view our scene before we land, all the way down to measuring a particle that might be as small as one one-hundredth of a hair width.

Narrator: And this particular mission to Mars is not landing with airbags as Spirit and Opportunity did and as Mars Pathfinder did in 1997.

Tamppari: Yes, we have a power descent landing system, so we're going to land on legs, and we have engines that will help slow us down. So basically when we come into the atmosphere, it's very similar to all of the previous spacecraft. We have a heat shield that protects us until we get lower in the atmosphere, we have a parachute that deploys. All of our previous spacecraft have used that. So it's then in that final one kilometer or so when we have a different mechanism and that's when we'll have the heat shield come off, the legs will deploy and the engines will start and slow us down to a nice, soft landing.

Narrator: Actually getting to and landing on Mars is very challenging, and it's always a real nail-biting experience.

Tamppari: We put a lot of effort into the entry, descent and landing, that's about six minutes from the top of the atmosphere to the landing. And we have a whole team of people working just specifically on that. So we have not only a lot of effort and a lot of talented engineering going into that, but we have a lot of reviews that help challenge us and make sure that we've thought of all possible things that can go wrong. However, landing on Mars is sometimes difficult and we could get unlucky, there are things we can't control. For example, the winds, we try our best to predict what they might be like and bound them, but we could get unlucky. In addition, we have picked a place that we think is very safe with respect to rocks, but still we might get unlucky and land on the one spot where there's a big rock. So we hope not and we've definitely tried to prevent against that to the extent possible. But it is still a risk to land on Mars.

Narrator: But the rewards are great, and if all goes well, after Phoenix what will you know that we do not know now?

Tamppari: Well, we hope to really understand the polar weather. We've never had a spacecraft successfully land in either of the polar regions, so Phoenix will be the first successful lander. And we hope to understand the habitability of the landing site, whether or not this location is conducive for life, should life have ever been on Mars.

Narrator: Thank you very much for joining us today.

Tamppari: Thank you.

Narrator: We've been talking with Phoenix Mars Lander project scientist Leslie Tamppari of JPL. More information on the mission is online at www.nasa.gov/phoenix . Thanks for joining us for this podcast from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
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