On Mars: Phoenix Lander Photographed In Descent

| May 27, 2008

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Over the long US holiday weekend, the latest Mars probe known as “Phoenix” landed near the Martian north pole. As wonderful as it is when we can actually get some of our gear on Mars to work correctly, it was even more fun that we were able to snap a picture of it taking place.

From space.com: Phoenix Lander’s Memorial Day on Mars

It was during Phoenix’s seven-minute plunge through the Martian atmosphere that NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter caught this view of the lander dangling from its precious parachute. It is the first-ever view of a spacecraft landing on another planetary body.

The 30-foot (10-meter) wide parachute is the white object on the right, with its connecting chords running to the Phoenix lander’s back shell to the lower left. The parachute appears to be fully deployed.

“This is an engineer’s delight,” Phoenix project manager Barry Goldstein said in a mission update today at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “When this was first proposed, I was very skeptical.”

MRO caught this view of Phoenix from an altitude of about 472 miles (760 km) using its High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera.The HiRISE recorded this image on May 25, 2008, at 4:36 p.m. Pacific Time (7:36 p.m. Eastern Time), NASA officials said. It is a highly oblique view of the Martian surface, 26 degrees above the horizon, or 64 degrees from the normal straight-down imaging of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and has a scale of 0.76 meters per pixel, they added.

What is fun about the HiRISE camera is that it has high enough resolution and accurate enough positioning that they could catch this shot. It also shows how dead on everyone’s math was both for the Phoenix’s landing, and the MRO camera team. Given the speed that Phoenix was traveling, it was probably in the field of view for less than a couple of seconds, yet HiRISE was able to image it, seemingly without too much trouble.

I am looking forward to what kind of discoveries Phoenix is able to make near the Martian north pole. After the time and expense of sending the probe there, we are all hoping it landed some place interesting.

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[Update – BRH] Seems it is in fact someplace interesting. Above is a picture of the Martian soil near the lander’s footpads. Notice the raised shape which scientists suggest comes sub-surface ice freezing and thawing to heave the soil into these shapes. Not only did the lander make it down safely, but it has deployed it’s solar cells, phoned home, set up its weather station and deployed the stereo camera. A busy little robot to be certain. Well done to JPL and everyone involved.

[Update – BRH] Another photo (below) of the Martian polar terrain from over at Bad Astronomy (excellent site for space nerdity!) showing the ground deformation possibly from subsurface water freezing and thawing.

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Compare to this picture of similar deformation in the permafrost of Siberia.

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Category: Avionics, Engineering, Main, Space

About the Author ()

Bruce Henderson is a former Marine who focuses custom data mining and visualization technologies on the economy and other disasters.

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