Saturday, May 24, 2008

Phoenix




NASA's latest mars probe, Phoenix, is almost ready to land. Click the image to go to their mission page. Tomorrow, Sunday May 25 at some time before 8pm eastern time (US). It's supposed to land near the northern polar region of Mars and its primary mission is to look for water ice. Ice and to investigate the climate. It's two main goals are to look for water ice and investigate the climate and to look for signs of life. Three! It's three goals are...

Sorry, I'll stop that. It's silly.

Climatology, geology and the search for life or life's traces are the major goals of this lander, and it's got a great collection of tools to do all that with. Built at the Lockheed facility in Littleton, CO (I used to drive by it once a week or so when I was in high school) its suite of instruments is interesting, with MECA as the really interesting unit. Wet chemistry and optical and atomic force microscopy. The page linked is rather old, saying things like "The probe will probably consist of three small spikes that will be inserted into the ends of an excavated trench." Probably? Isn't it a bit late to change your minds now?

I don't see any mention of the one instrument I would have tried to put on it: a mass spectrometer. Life on mars, if there still is any would probably be very small, maybe analogous to bacteria on Earth (look down, you can probably see Earth from where you are). Life on Mars in the past was also most likely bacteria-like. Small things eking out a living very frugally, to the point where even the isotopes they use are preferentially the lighter ones. This leaves telltale signatures in the stuff they leave behind, and a skewed isotope ratio would be a good indicator of life, past or present.

They need more microbiologists on staff at NASA. Maybe I should apply.

In any event, I'll be glued to the computer, watching NASA TV probably starting at 7ish. I hope all goes well, if this mission fails, that will bring the Mars totals to .500. Who knew landing on a little red rock hurtling through space would be so hard?

*EDIT: Watching the live coverage, I just learned that there is a mass spec aboard. That pleases me.

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