Text book, picture perfect, beautiful…..the words and phrases of a delighted NASA Phoenix Mars Lander team after confirmation was received of a safe landing on the Martian surface at exactly 4.53:44pm PDT.
The spacecraft is currently going through self-checking and notification is now awaited of the solar array deployment. “There’s still a lot of drama left” says Barry Goldstein, JPL Phoenix program manager who adds the first real data is due to be sent via Mars Odyssey in just coming in.
If the solar array does not come out as planned then the party mood will change. Without the panels the Phoenix has enough battery life for roughly 30 hours of operation and will be capable of sending only a few photographs as well as some limited weather data. However, unless the spacecraft is somehow wedged between rocks, which seems unlikely given its 0.25 degree tilt on touchdown, then are few reasons for the team to worry about this contingency.
Initial data shows the Phoenix made its final descent at 2.4 feet per second, close to the 5mph target speed. Batteries were at 98% charge level on landing, and the helium vented from the tanks 4 sec after landing, exactly as planned. The only slight terror-inducing moment was caused by the parachute which deployed 7 sec later than expected. The vehicle used 37.5kg of propellant and has 16kg remaining in the tanks which will freeze on the first Martian night.
Commenting on the achievement NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who was at JPL for the landing, said “for the first time in 32 years, and only the third time in history, a JPL team has carried out a soft landing on Mars.” Associate Administrator Ed Weiler, who ironically had to cancel the Mars 2001 Lander from which the Phoenix later emerged, commented that there is no room for complacency given the success of this mission so far and the on-going operations of the other Mars spacecraft. “You can’t call this routine,” he says.
Now everyone is waiting for Phoenix to start generating its own power, and for transmissions due later tonight confirming that masts for the stereo camera and weather station have swung into their vertical position. The team is not due to try and swing the 7.7 ft long robotic arm for at least two days, says the agency.