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All Eyes on Mars

Hoping for the best

I usually point readers to articles on interstellar issues when the weekly Carnival of Space comes out. But this time, with the polar regions of Mars on everyone’s mind, I’ll focus instead on the Red Planet. Todd Flowerday, who hosts the current Carnival at his Catholic Sensibility site, obviously shares my predilection. Todd’s been following space issues on his blog for quite some time and is a long-term correspondent, so it’s good to see him involved with the Carnival. He leads the parade this week with Cumbrian Sky‘s helpful compilation of information and links related to the flight of the Phoenix. Today, of course, is the big day.

We can all, I think, understand the apprehension and anticipation of Cumbrian Sky‘s post, as so well conveyed in this passage:

…during the landing itself I’ll be watching TWO monitors, not just one; my laptop is going to be… displaying the amazing real-time JPL animation/simulation of Phoenix’s Entry, Descent and Landing. I’ll start that playing at the appropriate time, and that will allow me to imagine I’m actually flying alongside Phoenix in a “chase plane” as she drops, screaming, through the thin Martian atmosphere, counting off the minutes then seconds then moments until landing… If I feel nervous now, how am I going to feel on Sunday night, when we’re so close to Mars after all the waiting? What kind of a state are my guts going to be in as thoughts of how many ways the landing can go wrong run through my head? I’m going to be an absolute nervous wreck!!

I’ve poached Stuart’s illustration to use in this post because it’s so evocative, especially for those who recall the last attempt to land at a Martian pole. Be sure to run through Cumbrian Sky‘s list of links to make sure you have what you need for the upcoming event. I also want to point you to Emily Lakdawalla’s post on the search for the missing Mars Polar Lander via imagery from orbit, including how previous landing sites have looked to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera. This is interesting stuff, for as Emily notes, “Mars Polar Lander is the missing lander whose crash site is most narrowly constrained, so the search requires a manageable number of HiRISE images.” Volunteer searchers can help out with this investigation; contact Emily for more.

Addendum: Well done!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • dad2059 May 24, 2008, 16:46

    I have to take my Mom shopping tomorrow, but hopefully I can get back in time to link up and witness this event.

    We need this.

  • James M. Essig May 25, 2008, 17:50

    Hi Paul and dad2059;

    I am looking forward greatly to the landing of the Mars probe today. My fingers are crossed on this one. I have read of the science that this probe will be capable of doing. The results should and I hope will prove very interesting.



  • george scaglione May 26, 2008, 12:52

    hello all,jim,dad etc,yes indeed! it is good to see mankind headed out into the solar system moon mars and beyond,HERE WE COME!!! always soooo good to see so much coverage of space exploration.right up our ally’s no?! a pleasure.also incidentally another first step toward the stars! thanks very much one and all your friend george

  • dad2059 May 27, 2008, 6:34

    Hi Jim and Paul,

    For once NASA and JPL didn’t have the Mars ‘jinx’ on them. They did good work all the way around.

    I found the ‘passing around the lucky peanuts’ ritual interesting from a social science perspective.

    As much as they hate to admit it, scientists are human beings too. We all have that need for superstition in us.

  • george scaglione May 27, 2008, 9:37

    jim i read what you wrote above and also naturally i have been thinking about the subject for myself.if they find life on mars or the possibility even that there had been life ,millions of years ago – that will be BIG for the space program.my god i can read the tabloid headlines now…LIFE ON MARS!! will be an even bigger stimulous for space exploration! no kidding all, your friend george ps one more thing on kind of the same subject.if we find an earthlike planet in the next few years! will that not provide the same kind of interest/stimulous etc!!?? never mind that the said planet may be 12 light years distant! still peoples interest will be peaked and they will just about demand to learn more! so,life on mars,earthlike planet…all to the good. :) respectfully once again,george

  • ljk May 27, 2008, 15:17

    Life Found a Mile Below Terrestrial Seabed; Implications For Life on Mars

    Written by Ian O’Neill

    We all know how hard life can be, but spare a thought for the microbes recently discovered 1.6 kilometres (1 mile) below the seabed off the coast of Canada. The living conditions are cramped, the environment is a searing 100°C (212F), and yet these hardy cells appear to be thriving.

    In the midst of the historic landing of Phoenix in the arctic wastes of Mars yesterday, the interest in finding life on the Red Planet has, yet again, reached fever pitch. Although Phoenix isn’t built to look for life, it is assessing the Martian surface water content for signs that it may (or may have been able to) support life. This new discovery of life so deep below the Earth’s surface may set some new limits on just how extreme life can be on other planets…

    Full article here:


  • ljk June 5, 2008, 23:47

    Future of Mars Exploration: What’s Next?

    By Andrea Thompson

    Senior Writer

    posted: 4 June 2008, 7:00 a.m. ET

    Now that NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander is settled in on the arctic plains of Mars, taking pictures and starting to gather samples, space agencies all over the world are planning and building the next robots and gadgets they plan to send to probe the mysteries of the red planet.

    NASA plans to waste no time in getting back to Mars after Phoenix finishes its three-month mission. By September or October of next year, launch is set for the Mars Science Laboratory, a beefed-up rover that will further explore the Martian surface (it will be the largest vehicle ever sent to Mars).

    And Americans won’t be the only ones visiting the red planet: The European Space Agency (ESA) is currently working on its own rover, dubbed ExoMars, which would be equipped to scout out signs of past or present life on Mars. The Chinese and Russian space agencies are also collaborating on a mission to the planet’s asteroid-like moon, Phobos.

    Full article here:


  • ljk June 17, 2008, 11:27

    ‘Dandruff’ could contaminate Phoenix landing site

    Published online 6 June 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.878

    Dead microbes and skin flakes from Earthlings may scupper the
    search for organic molecules.

    Eric Hand

    The most detailed photo ever of martian dust – but Phoenix may
    have less success in finding organic molecules.NASA/JPL-Caltech/
    Univ. Arizona

    Could Phoenix’s search for organic molecules on Mars be foiled
    by dandruff from Earth? After a successful landing last month on
    the planet’s northern plains, the NASA spacecraft is busily scraping
    through the martian dirt. Next week, the mission team plans to
    use one of its premier instruments, the Thermal and Evolved Gas
    Analyzer (TEGA), to test its first baked soil sample for molecules
    containing carbon.

    The search for the organic building blocks of life has been a
    major selling point for Phoenix; many press accounts have
    eagerly, yet mistakenly, foreshortened the mission’s raison
    d’etre to ‘the search for life’. Yet some mission scientists say
    that it is the science goal least likely to succeed, partly because
    TEGA is so sensitive that it may end up sensing only contamination
    from Earth.

    “We will see organics, for sure, because we’re bringing them,”
    says Aaron Zent, a mission scientist from NASA’s Ames Research
    Center in California. Likely contaminants include skin flakes,
    dead microbes and volatile lubricants. “The problem with an
    instrument so sensitive is all you detect is your own schmutz,”
    says Zent.

    Full article here:


  • george scaglione June 17, 2008, 14:27

    ljk wouldn’t that be really the most incredible bad luck if all we find is the contamination that we brought with us?!!! amazing! but part of me hopes and prays that that will NOT be the truth. thank you your friend george ps just went over to “full article here” and found out that i would be expected to pay to read it! SCAAAAAM!!!!!!!!!!! INCREDIBLE.

  • James M. Essig June 17, 2008, 22:07

    Hi George;

    The idea that we might find organic and/or biological chemicals brought from Earth would really be a let down. I certainly hope they find chemical signatures of life, past and/or present, that are strong enough to rule out Earth based microbes/chemicals. I am looking forward greatly with the determination of what that white colored substance is that could be an ice or a salt deposit. If it is salt, we will have a new form of bulk scale mineralogy section to add to our planetary geology text books.

    It will be nice if we learn how to terraform Mars and do so. Even if the lack of vigorous geologic activity would not permit a Martian atmosphere, relatively large inflatable domed cities could be built that are interconnected by pressurized causeways.


    Your Friend Jim

  • ljk November 11, 2008, 10:41

    Phoenix has one final important task that it will serve for decades
    if not centuries until it is found by future explorers: As a remote
    library holding many works of literature, art, and commentary
    about the Red Planet by those who made Phoenix and the other
    Mars explorers possible.

    The Visions of Mars CD is expected to last from 500 to 1,000 years
    intact. Hopefully we will have colonized the planet by then.

    See here for the details:


    I just wonder if there will be anyone able to read the data by the time
    it is found. As the recent Universe Today article on the Apollo lunar
    dust data tapes attest, four decade old media stored on this planet is
    almost unreadable now, so why should we expect future historians to
    have access to a CD player on Mars?


  • ljk March 25, 2009, 8:27

    Page last updated at 23:45 GMT, Tuesday, 24 March 2009

    Briny pools ‘may exist on Mars’

    By Paul Rincon

    Science reporter, BBC News, The Woodlands, Texas

    The probe had surpassed its expected lifetime by more than two months

    Pools of salty water might be able to exist just below the surface of Mars, planetary scientists believe.

    Researchers previously thought water existed largely as ice or as vapour on Mars, because of the low temperatures and atmospheric pressure.

    But Nasa’s Phoenix lander has shown the presence in Martian soil of perchlorate salts, which can keep water liquid at temperatures of minus 70C.

    Pockets of brine might form when soil interacted with ice.

    Researchers have been discussing the idea at the 40th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC), here in The Woodlands, Texas.

    They were presenting some of the first scientific results from Phoenix, which touched down on Mars’s northern plains on 25 May 2008.

    “I do think those pools might exist. But there’s still more to know about the properties of these perchlorate solutions, such as what their vapour pressure is,” Dr Mike Hecht, from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, explained.

    Full article here:


  • ljk May 21, 2009, 10:11

    May 20, 2009

    A Cold and Wet History on Early Mars?

    Written by Anne Minard

    Even if an early Mars never got above freezing, the brine on its surface could have stayed liquid and supported life, a new study says.

    Lead author Alberto G. Fairen, of NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, and his colleagues have analyzed the behavior of Martian chemical concentrations found at various mission landing sites, and revealed that warm temperatures wouldn’t have been necessary to support salt-loving life forms.

    The authors point out that many features on the Martian surface are believed to have been formed by flowing water and related mineral activity on the surface. Water is a key ingredient for life, but models were having a hard time envisioning a Mars warm enough to support it.

    Much evidence has indicated surface temperatures well below freezing.

    According to the new study, life may have fared all right anyway.

    “Solutes could depress the melting point of water in a frozen Martian environment, providing a plausible solution to the early Mars climate paradox,” the authors write.

    Full article here:


  • ljk July 5, 2009, 12:29

    July 2, 2009

    Perchlorates and Water Make for Potential Habitable Environment on Mars

    Written by Nancy Atkinson

    Caption: This mosaic assembled from Phoenix images show the spacecraft’s three landing legs. Splotches of Martian material on the landing leg strut at left could be liquid saline-water. Click for larger version on Spaceflightnow. com Credit: Kenneth Kremer, Marco Di Lorenzo, NASA/JPL/UA/Max Planck Institute and Spaceflightnow.com. Used by permission

    Scientists say that the Arctic region studied by Phoenix lander may be a favorable environment for microbes. Just-right chemistry and periods where thin films of liquid water form on the surface could make for a habitable setting.

    “Not only did we find water ice, as expected, but the soil chemistry and minerals we observed lead us to believe this site had a wetter and warmer climate in the recent past — the last few million years — and could again in the future,” said Phoenix Principal Investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson.

    The Phoenix science team released four papers today after spending months interpreting the data returned by the lander during its 5-month mission.

    Full article here, plus a cool-looking mosaic:


  • ljk July 5, 2009, 12:31

    July 2, 2009

    Phoenix Lander Team: It Snows at Night on Mars

    Written by Nancy Atkinson

    It snows on Mars. This occurs, at least in the northern arctic region where the Phoenix lander set up camp in 2008. Science teams from Phoenix were able to observe water-ice clouds in the Martian atmosphere and precipitation that fell to the ground at night and sublimate into water in the morning.

    James Whiteway and his colleagues say that clouds and precipitation on Mars play a role in the exchange of water between the ground and the atmosphere and when conditions are right, snow falls regularly on Mars.

    “Before Phoenix we did not know whether precipitation occurs on Mars,” Whiteway said. “We knew that the polar ice cap advances as far south as the Phoenix site in winter, but we did not know how the water vapor
    moved from the atmosphere to ice on the ground. Now we know that it does snow, and that this is part of the hydrological cycle on Mars.”

    Phoenix landed at the north arctic region on Mars (68.22°N, 234.25°E) on May 25th, 2008. On Mars, this was just before the summer solstice. Phoenix operated for 5 months, and was able to observe conditions as the seasons changed from summer to winter, giving science teams an unprecedented look at the planet’s changing weather patterns, including frost and precipitation.

    Full article here:


  • ljk September 17, 2009, 12:48

    September 16, 2009

    Phoenix’s Telltale Tells All About Winds and Weather on Mars

    Written by Nancy Atkinson

    On board the plucky little Phoenix Mars lander was an even pluckier and littler device called the Telltale. It measured, for the first time, wind speeds and directions at the Mars polar region.

    Scientists have now been able to summarize the results from the Telltale, and presented their findings at the European Planetary Science Conference in Potsdam, Germany. They shared some unexpected new findings about the weather on Mars.

    “Telltale has given us a wealth of information about the local Martian wind velocities and directions. At the Phoenix landing site, we were able to see meteorological changes caused by interactions between the dynamic north pole, where there are ever changing evaporation processes, and the Martian atmosphere,” said Dr. Haraldur Gunnlaugsson.

    Full article here: