Phoenix Landed. Perfect. Amazing.

The Phoenix has landed

No, I didn’t have WiFi at the Planetary Society’s Planetfest today. So if you came to this site, I hope the places I directed you to were good.

Earlier in the day, JPL Director Charles Elachi told us that “landing on another planet is one of the most challenging things we do at NASA.”

It was a very exciting time, being in a room with 750 people during the 7 minutes of terror, with NASA-TV projected on the screen. But the signals came through, bit by bit. Spacecraft separation. Enters atmosphere (no loss of signal during the hottest time–totally unexpected), parachute deployment, jettison heat shield. Landing feet extended. Radar lock. yesss!!!!! Deceleration…. and the numbers of altitude were read out. I could tell by the gaps between numbers and the smaller increments between readouts that the craft was decelerating. And then touchdown!!

A few quips:

From the press briefing just a bit ago:

NASA administrator: They make what’s incredibly hard look easy. The kind of precision to get the spacecraft to its destination is 1 point in 10million accuracy.

Or, as Ed Weiler (NASA Assoc Adminstrator for science) put it, If you think in terms of golf, it’s as though you teed off in Washington DC and hit a hole in one in Sydney, Australia. JPL Director Charles Elachi added: And the hole (in Sydney) is moving. Elachi continued, We now have three stations on Mars, Spirit, Opportunity and the Order of the Phoenix (there’s a nod to the Harry Potter fans)

Pete Smith, the Mission Principal Investigator: It may look like a parking lot, but by God, it’s a safe place to land.

Ed Sedivy rom Lockheed: We’ve got a perfectly functioning spacecraft on the surface of the planet.

Several people came to speak today at the Planetfest event. A coupla highlights:

Jim Green is at JPL NASA HQ, head of all Planetary Science projects. He reflected on how what we know about the solar system is so different from what he learned in school. “NASA has literally created the field of solar system physics.”

Jim Bell, the head of imaging for the Mars rovers, was there for much of the day to talk through what was happening on the NASA TV coverage (along with Donna Shirley, former head of Mars programs and head of the Mars Sojourner and Pathfinder — being mother of that mission makes her the grandmother of the Mars rovers), gave us some background on what it’s like to be there in mission control, recalling the two landings of the two rovers. Before the first rover, Spirit, landed, he and his team spent a bit of time before everything got underway to reflect on what they were about to do. He read quotes from the writings of Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark) and from John Wesley Powell, on the topics of exploration and going into new, uncharted territory. He also described feelings of camaraderie, pride in his colleagues, and the urge to vomit.

Rob Manning, who’s an EDL guru (Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity) talked of some issues with this mission — This is the first vehicle entry (into atmosphere) without attitude control (to change angle of position). Phoenix was originally designed with attitude control jets, but they did further investigation and decided that firing the jets at supersonic speeds would lead to unpredictable results. They simply don’t understand — and can’t model– what happens when jets are fired while vehicle is supersonic. There’s backflow, or a wake. (Picture that image of flames around the heatshield as spacecraft meets atmosphere; it’s cutting a wake through it) The unpredictable part: it’s as if you were driving a car, and when you put on the brakes, you make a left turn…or a right. They could, however, predict how the spacecraft would react to speed + backflow without attitude control jets– it would be aerodynamically stable. So they lined it up, and let it go. They directed the spacecraft to shut them off right before it hit the atmosphere. And it was stable, and it worked. Also, the parachute deployed 7 seconds late. Which is the same as Pathfinder, Spirit, and Opportunity… all the parachutes deployed 6 or 7 seconds late. There’s something going on that I think we need to look into. He described other tests conducted in the planning phases which revealed problems. All of which were fixed, with the clean landing results that we got.

Bill Nye pointed out that after landing someone asked, What if we have an extended mission? Nye said, “which is JPL-talk for ‘what if it doesn’t break?'” — a reference to the rovers which were supposed to last 90 martian days (or sols) and they are now up to Sol 1561. This is a 3-month mission and the martian polar cap will extend down and cover up the spacecraft as Martian summer turns to winter. There’s little chance that the spacecraft will survive beyond that time, but hey, you never know. They’re all just thrilled to have a successful landing, and the science part will begin as soon as engineering goes through a couple of sols to see how power consumption goes through the daily cycle.

There’s a little DVD on the spacecraft. On that DVD is a Mars library, greetings, and the names of a number of very many people, including Doc M, all my nieces and nephews, and my (former) WriteGirl mentee, who accompanied us at the event to witness her own “landing” on Mars. When we came back tonight, we looked into the night sky to try to spot the red planet (didn’t find it), but took a moment to consider that somewhere up there is a little red dot, and just think! today we landed a spacecraft near the North Pole of that planet, and your name and your name is actually on the planet. Mine is not. But I’ll get my name on the next mission, Mars Science Laboratory, by golly.

One response to “Phoenix Landed. Perfect. Amazing.”

  1. Mary

    Wow! This is certainly amazing – some of my friends’ kids might complain about “What – no colour” But I’ll take this!