Ami Bangladeshi

Ami Bangladeshi

Ami Bangladeshi

Mission to Red Planet

Mission to Mars awaiting '7 minutes of terror'

Updated Sat. May. 24 2008 7:45 AM ET

Philip Stavrou, CTV.ca News Staff

NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander will finally arrive at its destination on Sunday night, ready to search for signs of habitability on the Red Planet.

In its mission to find out if there's an environment for life on Mars, Phoenix will use a 7.7-foot arm to scoop up samples of underground ice and soil on the surface.

On earth, wherever there's water there's life and so the search for life on Mars is based around a 'follow-the-water' philosophy.

"This is a mission about understanding water in all its phases," Dr. Alain Berenstain, director of Space Exploration for the Canadian Space Agency, told CTV.ca.

Phoenix, which is scheduled to land farther north on Mars than any previous rover or lander, will be the first device ever to touch water -- although it will be in its frozen form.

Once scientists understand Mars' different forms of water (solid, liquid or gas), the cycle of water, and what's in the water, they'll be better able to figure out if Mars could have been a habitable place, Berenstain said.

Complicated landing

The big task before any research can occur is making sure Phoenix lands safely after its nearly 200-million kilometre journey.

"There's a lot of trust in your little child that you've sent off to do the right thing," said Berenstain.

Phoenix is scheduled to enter the top of the Martian atmosphere at a speed of nearly 21,000 km/h.

In the ensuing seven minutes, described by NASA as "seven minutes of terror," the spacecraft will have to complete a challenging sequence of pre-programmed events to slow down before it lands.

The biggest risk comes from large rocks on the surface of Mars which could spoil the landing or prevent the solar panels from being able to open.

"Only half of the missions that have attempted to land on Mars have succeeded," said Berenstain. "This is a risky business and it's not something that's easy to do.

"The reality is that every time we land on Mars we still hold our breath."

If it lands successfully, telemetry data -- comparable to an 'I'm okay' beep -- will be heard about 15 minutes later.

Then, scientists will have to wait about an hour-and-a-half until an orbiter passes over the Phoenix and helps transmit the first set of pictures back to earth.

Canada's contribution

Canada spent $37 million to create Phoenix's weather station, which will help scientists gain insight about the environment around the landing site.

The device includes a pressure sensor, three temperature sensors and a "lidar" -- also written as LIDAR, an acronym for Light Detection and Ranging.

"It points up into the sky with pulses of laser light and looks at the reflected light coming off of the pulses that go up into the sky," said Berenstain.

"That reflected light has a lot of information in it. Basically, whatever that laser beam hits along the way will reflect back down."

The laser could hit dust particles or water crystals, including clouds, which could be in the atmosphere.

The data will be important to help understand both the atmosphere and water on Mars.

With that knowledge, scientists will then be able to better understand the whole question of life on Mars.

The 'life' scientists could eventually find on future missions to Mars would be microbial rather than green creatures with big heads, Berenstain said.

Search for life

If life were ever to be found on Mars, it could be the biggest scientific discovery in man's history, Berenstain said.

That's because so many earthly philosophies are based on the fact that man is unique in the universe, he said.

Such a discovery would then prompt another important question: Is the life on Mars related to life on earth or did it develop on its own?

And if scientists discover life was able to develop on its own on Mars, it would lead to "huge fundamental questions about our own existence," Berenstain said.

"It would mean that almost anywhere in the universe there could be lots of life that existed."

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