The Story Of NASA’s Martian Lander

The Story Of NASA’s Martian Lander

Much like pimpin’, shooting 770 pounds of scientific equipment through 36 million miles of space and getting it to then work on the surface of another planet ain’t easy. Martian Summer recounts the unyielding determination and technological innovation needed to get there.

It’s near quitting time after a long day of taking photos of new acquaintances — Lory and Mad Hatter — measuring atmospheric gases, and digging. The Phoenix Mars lander beeps and blips along. The sun never sets on these long Martian summer nights, but the Phoenix has strict orders to rest. The engineers want Phoenix asleep before 5:00 p.m., Mars time. Soon it will be time to put away its instruments and recharge its batteries. With the core plan nearly finished, Peter Smith and the engineers back home will be pleased. There’s just one more critical task before Phoenix can crank up its night-time heaters and initiate sleep.

“RA Acquire Sample with Rac Doc” is the instruction. This note and the corresponding lander code tells Phoenix to scrape up the first ever scoopful of Martian dirt. It’s no ordinary scoop of Martian dirt. This scoop is a milestone in a long journey-one that took centuries to complete. It’s the first human experiment ever done on the arctic plains of Mars. And a tiny step in the process of one day getting a man to Mars. A small camera mounted on the robot arm documents the moment for posterity.

Once this Martian dirt is safely tucked away, Phoenix will send home its daily report and then head off to bed-to dream of finding little green men and having its day delivering a lecture to the king of Norway when it accepts its Nobel Prize on a stage in Oslo. I know it’s just a robot, but did I mention it’s not coming back alive? Phoenix is a robot suicide mission.

Back on Earth, I imagine what it might be like on Mars as I swipe my security badge for the first time and walk into Mission Control.

In case you haven’t been glued to, The Phoenix Mars Lander is a robotic spacecraft built by NASA, the University of Arizona, the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), Lockheed Martin, the Canadian Space Agency, and a whole consortium of international universities and industry, all under the leadership of one intimidating scientist named Peter Smith. It carries six scientific instruments to complete its mission: find out what Mars used to be like and if anything can, or did, live there.

We don’t really know all that much about what’s going on down on the surface of Mars. “Is there life on Mars?” might feel like just a brilliant David Bowie lyric, but it’s actually a legitimate and central question. It’s worth a tiny digression to talk about the “life on Mars” issue before we get back to humanity’s first interplanetary groundbreaking ceremony.

Sometimes aliens are the only things that make us care about Mars. They’re the gateway drug to the hard science. There’s no shame in dreaming about aliens. Even the most stone-faced scientists on the Phoenix Mars lander team imagine what might happen if they turn on the electron-scanning microscope and see tiny cells mucking about. Even better, if Phoenix found some wide-eyed E.T.s lounging on the ice, NASA would get a huge new budget, Martian Summer book sales would be through the roof, and Peter Smith and the Phoenix Lander would share a Nobel Prize. Win-win-win.

What’s more likely is Phoenix might run into tiny bits or blobs of unrecognizables that would be hard to classify. How do you know when you have found “life” if it doesn’t look like you or even anything you are even remotely familiar with that falls within your classification of “alive”? Even defining life on Earth is kind of a tricky thing. If you’re too inclusive in your definition, then you end up allowing things like cars-that convert energy and move-as living. But if you’re too restrictive you might designate things like mules-that convert energy and move but don’t reproduce-as not living.

If it doesn’t have eyes and use a ray-gun, and it’s not a DNA or RNA or even carbon-based life form, how will you know it’s alive? Finding new forms of life on another planet would send our idea of sentient supremacy into a tailspin. Since we only have one data point, life on earth, finding some strange form of life on Mars would certainly shake things up a bit. This mission does not have any sort of DNA detectors, but it’s got some good tools for decoding whatever mysteries it encounters. So I’d like to quash those hopes and fears before you get too excited about this book revealing a giant Mars conspiracy of brain wave-reading Martians. But don’t worry; there will be plenty of time for tinfoil hats, whether they be a fez, centurion, classic, or even a bonnet for the ladies. Read on but keep your Reynolds Wrap close at hand, because there will still be some unanswered questions at the end of the mission.

Mars was once similar to Earth. Then, a couple of billion years ago, it went from a soupy-warm planet to a cold desert. We don’t know how that march toward doom happened. There are huge gaps in our knowledge: from simple things like the pH of the soil to big, earthshatteringly revolutionary things, like is Mars habitable? Phoenix, the robot, is mandated to find the answers to these fundamental questions. If everything goes according to plan, we should have some answers in the next 90 days. (Or less, if you read quickly.)

Before Phoenix, remotely directed robotic spacecraft successfully reached Mars on five occasions. Viking I and II in the late 1970s, the Pathfinder in 1996, then the never-say-die rovers-still in operation-since 2003. No mission had yet ventured to the Martian arctic or brought a long shovel for digging into the surface. For a long time, planetary folk thought it was a big block of frozen carbon dioxide that rained out of the atmosphere and froze on the poles of the planet. Over time, it created huge scarps and ice sheets. Then at the University of Arizona, Bill Boynton, a smooth-headed, whitebearded scientist who races Porsches and leaves the top buttons on his collared shirts undone, discovered the north pole of Mars was loaded with hydrogen. That hydrogen was likely tangled up with oxygen in the familiar H2O configuration (hint: it’s water), suggesting that instead of tons of dry ice, there might be a giant frozen ocean below the surface of Mars. A giant ocean on Mars? That’s worth looking into. Soon after, NASA selected Peter’s lander project and Phoenix was born.

The Phoenix Mars Lander is not going to win any robot beauty pageants. Phoenix looks like a bloated, stationary Johnny 5 with a touch of Fetal Robot Alcohol Syndrome. Her scientific guts are all exposed on a bare three-legged scaffold of a body, yet her chunky metal cylinder of a head is where most of her magic happens. But it’s what’s on the inside that counts. And yet, the computer inside Phoenix isn’t even all that sophisticated. The smartphone in your pocket can do far more FLOPS (floating point operations per second) than the RAD6000 chip that runs Phoenix. Not that this machine isn’t a wonder of modern engineering; it is. When Lockheed Martin and JPL built the original incarnation of the Phoenix body in the late 1990s, this was top-quality space hardware. It’s just more difficult than you think to upgrade space-certified hardware. Space certification requires more than the stamp of a Notary Public-and it costs millions of dollars. When you add new parts to a lander there are loads of hidden costs. Since Team Peter already blew through its cost-cap by about $US30 million just to make this puppy fly, there was no room for bells or whistles. Imagine Peter’s embarrassment at the Explorer’s club when he had to explain why there wasn’t going to be an anemometer on board and the flash memory was limited to 100MB. Oh, dear. I hear they couldn’t even afford touch sensors for the robot arm!?

Phoenix is a “green” lander. Sorta. Its body is recycled from the unused twin of Mars Polar Lander that crashed in 1999. That’s why it’s called Phoenix. It’s rising from the ashes; rebirth out of the ruins (not because we’re in Arizona). Peter liked the poetry of it all, “From ye ashes thy spacecraft shall riseth and seeketh thine Martian truth, and we shall call you Phoenix.” It’s what I imagine Peter said when he got the call from NASA telling him his mission had been accepted. But that might give you the wrong impression that Peter speaks like Jesus. He rarely does. His voice is more of a halting swagger with a hint of gravel and some avuncular overtones that are particularly notable when Peter explains some bit of science that’s captured his-and inevitably your-imagination.

The imagineering done on Phoenix comes courtesy of the science payload-the scientific machinery it carries. This payload consists of six instruments designed to characterize the properties and makeup of the Martian environment. The Phoenix will use its robotic arm to dig up soil samples and run experiments to determine what’s in the ground and how it got there. The instruments range in complexity from a simple wind-measuring telltale to an extremely sensitive atomic force microscope. Some of the friendly scientists you’re about to meet described their instruments to help you better understand the little friend you will follow throughout these pages. The glazed-over mind-wandering feeling you get from reading about these instruments is just your brain making the leap to hyper speed. Don’t be alarmed.

Robotic Arm (RA)

The Phoenix Mars Lander is a dig and eat mission. In order to be a success, the lander has to break ground and scoop up some dirt. So they need a long digging arm for the task. The robot arm (RA) is just under eight feet long with an elbow joint in the middle and a bucket scoop on the end. Sticking out from the backside of the scoop is a circular rasp. Its job will be to acquire icy-soil samples if the team is lucky enough to find them.

The arm reaches out over the lander, scoops up Mars dirt and then dumps it into the other science instruments. Needless to say, the RA engineers are all really good at that game where you try to pick up the stuffed animal with the claw. I suspect this talent was a critical factor in how they got their jobs in the first place.

If you want to dig into the permafrost on Mars, why not bring an ice-coring machine instead of a digging arm? Funny I should ask. It is a good idea, a planetary scientist’s dream to be exact. The problem with bringing something like a huge coring device is, simply, weight. It’s simply difficult and expensive to get heavy things to Mars. We can estimate about five figures per pound of weight we bring along. You think the airlines baggage fees are excessive until you pay NASA an extra couple hundred grand for your carryon. Shovels and drills are far too heavy to bring on a budget-conscious mission like Phoenix, and so a delicate robot arm must be precisely engineered to perform a wide array of tasks with its little (and light) claw.

Robotic Arm Camera (RAC)

The RAC is attached to the RA just above the scoop. The instrument provides close-up, full-frontal colour images of the Martian surface close to the ground, under the lander, or anywhere the RA can go. Its got all kinds of filters and scientific attachments to capture and make sense of extreme close-ups of dirt or whatever else Phoenix can dig up. I for one am hopeful for a secret decoder ring.

Surface Stereo Imager (SSI)
The SSI functions as the eyes of Phoenix. It takes the pretty postcard pictures you might see on the Internet. The design is based on Peter’s famous stereo-imager built for the Pathfinder mission. That was the first Mars camera to use a Charge Coupled Device (CCD) like you’d find on your digital camera at home. Since then, it’s had a few upgrades but it’s still your classic Mars imager. For eight to ten million space bucks, Peter will build you one too. The SSI has precisely manufactured glass lenses and flawless resolution. Situated atop a large mast, SSI will provide images at a height of up to two meters above the ground, roughly the height of a “tall” person. The two lenses on SSI simulate the human eye, creating three-dimensional stereo vision. It’s loaded with all kinds of filters to create images in various regions of the light spectrum. These filters will help the team figure out what they’re looking at, whether the refiective object they see might be ice or just some shiny bits of rock.

Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA)
MECA is made up of four instruments: a wet chemistry lab, two microscopes, and a conductivity probe. The first real chemistry work done on Mars involves dissolving small amounts of Mars dirt in water- brought from Earth-with the unironically-named wet chemistry lab (WCL) to determine the pH, what types of minerals are present, and their conductivity. MECA contains four single-use WCL beakers, each of which accepts one sample of Martian mud. Phoenix’s RA will deliver a small sample to a beaker, then a pre-warmed and calibrated soaking solution is added. The optical and atomic-force microscopes complement MECA’s wet chemistry experiments. With images from these microscopes, scientists will examine the fine detail structure of soil and water ice samples. Who knows what else they might see? MECA’s thermal and electrical conductivity probe is attached at the scoop joint, where the scoop meets the arm of the RA. The probe has four small spikes that can be pressed directly into the ground. And this probe can read temperature and humidity of the air and measure the temperature and conductivity of the soil.

Thermal Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA)
TEGA is a combination high-temperature furnace and mass spectrometer instrument used to analyse Martian ice and soil samples. Basically, it’s a robotic nose. The instrument drives off gas that the sensors inside can “sniff” at various temperatures. Magic happens. It works like this: the robotic arm delivers samples to a hopper designed to feed a small amount of dirt and ice into eight tiny ovens, each one intended for a single use. Once received and sealed in an oven, the sample cooking begins. The engineers carefully increase the temperature at a constant rate, and closely monitor the power needed to heat the sample. This process, called “scanning calorimetry,” shows the transition of the sample as it decomposes into its gassy components. The gas that’s released is passed on to the mass spectrometer for analysis. This information is vital to understanding the chemical makeup of the soil and ice.

Meteorological Station (MET)
MET will record the daily weather of the Martian northern plains. Using temperature and pressure sensors and a crazy first-time-on-Mars laser beam light detection and ranging (LIDAR) instrument, MET watches the weather. Every lander worth its salt should have a laser beam. The MET’s LIDAR works sort of like RADAR, using powerful laser light pulses rather than radio waves. The LIDAR transmits light vertically into the atmosphere. This light is then reflected off dust and ice particles. The instrument collects and analyzes the light to reveal information about the size of atmospheric particles and their location. MET provides information on the current state of the polar atmosphere as well as how water is cycled between the solid and gas phases in the Martian arctic.

These aren’t the most sophisticated instruments technology has to offer. They are simply some of the most sophisticated instruments you can safely get to Mars for under a billion dollars. They were carefully designed and tested to squeeze stellar results from a meager space budget and countless restrictions. Constructing instruments for Mars presents all kinds of challenges that terrestrial technology simply doesn’t have to deal with. It’s a challenge that’s hard to appreciate until highly calibrated sensors give odd readings or valves freeze open 200 million miles from home. Sensitive lab gear is never meant to be strapped on the cone of a missile, irradiated for months on end, and then slammed onto the surface of a dusty cold place. It’s meant for a sterile, temperature-controlled lab and gentlemen who wear white coats.

Top art courtesy of the Associated Press


Andrew Kessler is a writer living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in The New York Times and on The Discovery Channel. He holds a degree in mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley and works as a creative director at HUGE. This is his first book about Mars-or any planet for that matter.

Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission is available from