Excitement builds for NASA's spacecraft

May 13, 2008 7:39:43 PM PDT
If you take space travel for granted, here's a bit of trivia for you. Humans have sent hardware toward mars 36 different times. Two-thirds of those missions have failed and it goes without saying, that getting to the red planet is not easy.

As Sir Isaac Newton once calculated, what goes up must come down. But, if it goes up fast and straight enough, it will come down -- on Mars. Hence, the building anticipation for a spacecraft called Phoenix.

"You can imagine the bad things that can happen," says Dr. Michael Wright.

And at NASA Ames in Mountain View, they pay Dr. Michael Wright to do just that. His main concern is a thin layer of high-tech cork and glass, also known as the heat shield.

The main question is how this material will react upon entry at five miles a second and temperatures of 3,000 degrees fahrenheit.

Unfortunately, plenty can happen between here and there. A small crack or micro-meteor can doom a heat shield and this spacecraft, which NASA intends to land near a polar ice cap.

Phoenix will use thrusters to descend, and then, if all goes according to plan, it will dig into the icy soil, melt the water, and sniff.

"We're looking to see what dissolves when we ingest the sample into the instrument," says SASA Ames researcher Richard Quinn, Ph.D.

It's an instrument very similar to the one that Dr. Richard Quinn keeps in a freezer in his lab. He keeps it in a freezer because that simulates the cold its twin will face on Mars.

"It will tell us where or not that environment might be hospitable to life," says Quinn.

So really, the Phoenix' mission is all about building blocks. It consists of a a launch, a long trip, a 14 minute and very complicated landing sequence, then a theory, an important test and ultimately, a result that leads to more specific questions.


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