Sunday, May 25, 2008

Phoenix to hit dirtside on Mars...tonight!

It's taken a little over ten months to get there, but tonight, the Phoenix will land on Mars' northern polar ice cap. (that link should be good for viewing it live) In about ten hours, it's expected to land around 7:30EST. Almost eight years in the making, the Phoenix project is the first in NASA's "scout" programs, focusing on low-cost ways to explore our solar system. NASA's been at the helm the whole time with Phoenix, but once it's dirtside, the University of Arizona takes over the mission, that's a historical first. This is very exciting stuff, not that the Rovers we've got on there aren't cool enough, or even the Global Surveyor, but this is the first time we've been to one of the poles, which is suspected to have water ice. I'm 'tagging' this as sci-fi, even though it's real life it's so cool and 'out there' it's gotta get the tag. I'm also tagging it as personal, having been a big fan of the space program since I saw the first shuttle launch, live, in 1981.

Update: It went off without a hitch! The Phoenix Lander has been on Mars' polar cap for a few hours now, and already its sending in the first wave of photos (see below). Very cool stuff all around, I've got a couple of these links above, but for posterity: the excellent Phoenix Lander site found here, by the University of Arizona has a thorough site. At midnight they had a post-mission briefing, live, on NASA TV, which also had footage of the landing, pretty cool to check out as well. The whole reason us Earthlings were able to view the landing to begin with is because they maneuvered the orbiting Global Surveyor over the pole, and had a bird's eye view of the whole thing.

It's not that obvious, but most missions to Mars actually fail. With the Phoenix being successful, it lowered the track record to 50% success rate, it was before tonight. Basically, the NASA kids had a 20km window to thread the needle through. Twenty kilometers sounds pretty big, but they were covering 650 million kilometers just to get there. As they put it in the post-mission briefing, it's like standing on the shore in the state of Washington, hitting a golf ball, and scoring a hole-in-one on the continent of Australia. That's a pretty good shot...

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