Sunday, May 25, 2008

Phoenix Landing

So, the day has finally come, the Phoenix Lander is going to land on Mars today! The real question is, will it land in one piece? Okay, those of you who know way too much about space will know that an optimal landing will involve several pieces, but you know what I mean.

So, in about 4 and a half hours, Phoenix will enter the Martian atmosphere. At first, it will use a heat shield to protect it against the heat produced by the spacecraft compressing the air in front of it. When it gets closer to the surface, it will eject a supersonic parachute, which should slow it down enough to use a normal parachute. At the same time, it will eject it's heat shield. These both happen about 5 miles above the surface of the planet. Still, both of these parachutes will not be large enough to stop it completely. The atmosphere of Mars is much thinner than that of Earth. Also, you don't want to get tangled up in a parachute, that could be a mess, not to mention cutting the power and imaging capacity of the spacecraft. The parachutes will fly away, along with what is called the backshell, shortly before it will land. Then on board rockets on the Phoenix will take care of the rest of the work, several of them pulsing, and a few more constant.

If all goes well, then Phoenix will call home. This whole process takes about 7 minutes, and is known as the "7 minutes of terror". Everyone who has been working on the spacecraft will be holding their breath, to know if like it's near twin, the Mars Polar Lander, it will fail, or if they managed to fix the problems to have a successful landing. Soon enough, we will all know.

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