Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Flop of the Phoenix?

Well done is better than well said. ~ Benjamin Franklin

Some man-made probes have performed so incredibly well that it beggars belief.

Tied for number one on the all-star team are the Mars rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, still chugging along on the red planet years after they were supposed to be done. They continue to provide discoveries, and, barring NASA budget-cutting stupidity, could continue to explore Mars for some time to come.

Stardust, which went comet-sniffing, captured so many particles that scientists are still trying to find sort out data. A recent release showed that at least some comets have a makeup similar to that of asteroids. In a way, that news is confusing. Comet Wild 2, which Stardust sniffed, is supposed to have come from the Kuiper Belt or beyond, which means it should have been made up of pristine material from 4.6 billion years ago. Most of the material being found is newer, forcing scientists to do some rethinking about comet and/or asteroid makeup.

Even Genesis, which bought the farm on its return, is turning out to have some stories to tell. Despite having cratered in the desert, it turns out that the Genesis payload was at least partially recoverable, thanks to some incredible efforts by the team. Genesis is telling us something about the makeup of the sun, finding it to have more of some oxygen isotopes than Earth and meteorites.

Then there are the Voyagers, which are still sending data back to fascinated scientists. Both Voyager 1 and 2 have now reached the heliopause, and they're telling us that the heliopause is sort of squished, for reasons that aren't yet clear.

Even the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes, precursors to the Voyagers, which were launched in 1972 and 1973 have left us with the puzzle of why they aren't exactly where they're supposed to be. Of course, this anomaly sends some people down the old "Einstein's theories must be wrong" road, but I suspect they'll find, eventually, that, as usual, Einstein was right and that the Pioneers have revealed something else more interesting.

And then there's Phoenix.

I'll admit to being very excited when Phoenix landed, even though it seemed way too much was being made about a powered descent onto Mars. After all, we managed to land Viking 1 and 2 that way in 1976. Surely we should be able to duplicate something we did 32 years ago. How are we ever going to land explorers on Mars if we can manage a soft powered landing?

At any rate, it was exciting to see the first pictures back from Mars' polar region. I was struck, however, by the rather Rube Goldberg method of relaying information. Phoenix uploads its data to either Mars Odyssey or Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which relays the data to Earth. The orbiters also relay instructions to the lander. What this means is that doing anything takes a couple of days. The situation has been further complicated by the fact that both orbiters have had their relay systems go into safe mode at least once since Phoenix started trying to phone home.

I'm presuming that this arcane method of communicating is being done because of Phoenix's position near the polar region, which must put Earth below the horizon. At least, I hope that's why, because no other reason makes sense, when we've had five other probes on the planet that were able to directly communicate to Earth-based handlers.

They almost couldn't unencumber the digging arm, which would have been a disaster as it would have rendered Phoenix useless.

Then there was the clumping problem. It seemed that scientists weren't planning on Mars dirt clumping up, despite every indication that, if there was water immediately under the surface dirt anywhere, it would be at the poles. Thanks to the clumping, it took several days to get any dirt delivered to the little oven to burn some for analysis.

Now it turns out that the lander may only be able to bake one more sample, thanks to a short circuit.

I doubt we'll be seeing two years of extended missions for this lemon.

Frankly, the entire design concept for Phoenix seems wonky. To begin with, we got a lot of experience from Viking on digging and testing Martian dirt. We've also been seeing for some time now that Martian dirt clumps, thanks to the Rovers. Third, we know there has been water on Mars and have detected subsurface water on the planet thanks to ground-penetrating radar.

It would have made much more sense to dedicate resources to making a super rover that would be designed to cover large distances for a long period. Instead of concentrating on grinding rocks like the current Rovers, this one could have carried testing equipment for bacterial life. We've learned a lot about testing for extremophiles that would allow design of more sophisticated tests than were carried by the Vikings.

So Phoenix scraped some dirt and found something that looks like ice. A roving probe could have done that and looked for it in more places.

Phoenix was originially designed years ago and effectively cancelled. It was resurrected for reasons that aren't really clear, probably because there were no realistic plans for new probes that were anywhere near ready to go. Whatever the reason, Phoenix represents a lot of money and time being spent to accomplish very limited goals, goals that were being accomplished very well, thank you, by other devices.

I wish the Phoenix team well and hope that they get some meaningful return for their efforts. In fact, I hope they get any kind of return.

Maybe a Martian abominable snowman will come wandering by the camera.

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