On Sunday 25th May, NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander made a successful touch down on flat terrain on the Martian arctic plain. It is an amazing achievement by any standards. Forget the World Cup – autonomously landing an awkward bug-shaped vehicle on uncertain terrain, over 33,900,000 miles away, makes the most legendary of football goals look like child's play.
Commenting on the landing minutes before the event, Mars Phoenix lander project manager, Barry Goldstein from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory explained that there were 26 events taking place – pyrotechnics, separations and deployments ” in the last 14 minutes before touchdown. Conveying just a glimpse of the undoubted nervousness he felt, he said of the decent and landing process: “All the hard work, all the long hours, all the sleepless nights of worrying about problems – all comes down to that final period of time.”
For the engineer, scientists and project managers involved in this mission, it was a moment that had been long anticipated – the Phoenix Mars Lander mission was selected in August 2003 in the first round of NASA's Mars Scout competition, and it set off on the journey to Mars on 4th August, 2007.
The mission will seek to answer questions about the northern part of Mars. It's an area where water ice has been identified and among the questions the Phoenix hopes to address is whether there are the conditions to support life. With the solar panels now deployed, the power will be available to enable the robotic arm to begin digging down through the soil to the ice layer, and delivering samples to the lander's powerful instrument suite. If you have a moment, take a look at the images already coming through from the spacecraft's Surface Stereo Imager – staggering!
This mission was named Phoenix for good reason, as it carries with it the legacies of two earlier failed attempts to explore Mars. The lander was built for the Mars Surveyor mission which NASA later abandoned, whilst parts of the science payload was designed for Mars Polar Lander, which was lost as it entered the Martian atmosphere in 1999.
With an average temperature of about -60 degrees C, strong winds and mighty dust clouds, the ultimate success of the mission still lies in the balance. Notably, dust storms are currently dogging the progress of NASA's Opportunity and Spirit rovers on another part of Mars.
NASA's approach is to send a mission to Mars every 26 months, and to learn from both successes and failures. Carrying on with my sports analogy, it recognises that if you don't play the game, you won't win. Contrast that with ESA's reaction to the loss of Beagle 2 – it won't be sending another European mission to Mars until 2015. It's desperately frustrating, particularly when you consider all that talent, not to mention experience, within Europe's space industry. If we want that to flourish, then we need to invest in it, and we need to accept that there will be failures along the way. After all, it wouldn't be worth pursuing if there weren't any risks involved.