RIS­ING FROM THE PHOENIX

In­Sight owes a big debt of grat­i­tude to a pre­vi­ous lan­der that NASA put down on the Mar­tian sur­face

Sky at Night Magazine - - INSIGHT MARS LANDER -

To those who fol­low Mar­tian mis­sions, In­Sight might look rather fa­mil­iar. That’s no sur­prise: it is closely based on the Phoenix lan­der, which touched down in Mars’s po­lar re­gion on 25 May 2008. The In­Sight team has bor­rowed the de­sign for the lan­der’s de­scent hard­ware, base struc­ture and ro­botic arm from Phoenix, but added a com­pletely new set of science in­stru­ments.

This helped to re­duce costs dra­mat­i­cally but also put sev­eral lim­its on the mis­sion. Phoenix only op­er­ated for six months, but In­Sight is de­signed to last for at least a Mar­tian year, if not longer. This means it has to land on the equa­tor, or the so­lar pan­els won’t be able to col­lect enough power dur­ing the dim win­ter months. In ad­di­tion, the de­scent sys­tems will only work over a cer­tain range of al­ti­tudes and the only place on the equa­tor at the right el­e­va­tion is the flat Ely­sium Plani­tia re­gion.

The Phoenix mis­sion it­self was con­cerned with the sur­face, rather than what lay be­neath, and at­tempted to find out how hos­pitable the Mar­tian soil was to life, past or present. The ro­botic arm took soil sam­ples that were then heated, re­veal­ing they con­tained wa­ter ice, and the chances of hab­it­abil­ity ini­tially looked bright.

The ex­cite­ment was short-lived as Phoenix also found per­chlo­rates, a chem­i­cal that re­duces the freez­ing point of wa­ter. While this could mean it is pos­si­ble for liq­uid wa­ter to ex­ist on the sur­face, when com­bined with other min­er­als and sub­jected to Mar­tian lev­els of ul­tra­vi­o­let ra­di­a­tion, per­chlo­rates cause a 10-fold in­crease in cell death. If any life did evolve on Mars, it would have found it­self in a very hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment.

The Phoenix Mars Lan­der’s robot arm scoops a sam­ple for its Op­ti­cal Mi­cro­scope

An im­age of wa­ter frost on Mars cap­tured by the Phoenix Lan­der on 14 Au­gust 2008

A trench dug out by Phoenix’s robot arm which sci­en­tists be­lieve re­veals buried ice

In­Sight is us­ing some of Phoenix’s hand-me-downs

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