The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was hopping on Sunday night after the Phoenix Mars Lander successfully landed on the polar ice cap of Mars. STAR Discovery Educators and AZ Leadership Council members Darcy White, Diana Laufenburg, Allison Oswald-Keene and I were honored to represent the DEN at the JPL as history was made 422 million miles away.
After ten months of traveling at 16,000 mph, the cruise stage ended and the lander was ready to make its descent to Mars. According to our host, sending Phoenix from the earth to the polar ice cap of Mars can be compared to launching a golf ball from Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and hitting home plate in Wrigley Field in Chicago 1744 miles away (a fitting analogy with the Dodgers and the Cubs squaring up in Chicago this week). Unlike its predecessors, this rover does not have wheels! A stationary science lab, all of the experiments will be conducted at one location in the Martian arctic making the exact positioning of the lander a make or break detail.
In a room full of NASA friends, family and some very smart people, we waited for 90 minutes for the Phoenix to phone home. Data is relayed 422 million miles to the earth via X-band radio waves in 15 minutes time! As the first pictures of the solar panels (confirming their deployment), the foot bed (showing how the lander had settled into the surface), and the horizon (the first glimpse of the polar ice cap) arrived, mission control erupted again! Not only had Phoenix arrived safely, but it was ready to get to work.
It’s mind boggling that a manmade object can enter the Mars atmosphere at 12,750 mph and be safely slowed to 5 mph in 7 minutes time! With all of the things that could have gone wrong, the Phoenix team expressed their surprise with how smoothly everything went. What is their secret? Maybe it’s a yellow plastic bowl adorned with cute little bunnies and filled with peanuts that made its third appearance in the control room as a source of “good energy” during the re-entry communication blackout. With a three for three record of bringing good luck (Spirit, Opportunity and now Phoenix), I wonder if they will lend the bowl to me for next year’s spring training?