It’s exam season in Oxford, and I’ve made my first sightings of scared looking undergraduates in formal academic dress heading for the exam schools. I’m used, at this time of year, to waking up in the middle of the night tormented by dreams of the years that I sat through exam after exam after exam. This year’s been different, though, and instead of quantum mechanics and question choices I’ve been dreaming nervous dreams of landing ellipses and ice beneath the Martian surface.
In just over a week, if all goes well the latest probe to the red planet will touch down near the Martian poles and begin its study of the area. For many if not most of the science team preparing for the ride of their lives, this is a second shot at Mars as most were involved in the ill-fated Mars Polar Lander mission; that’s why the mission is called Phoenix, after the mythological bird that rises from its own ashes.
Landing at or near the poles, rather than at the safer equatorial region, brings a whole set of new challenges. The angle of entry into the atmosphere must be different, and Phoenix’s seven minute descent is a minute or so longer than that taken by Spirit and Opportunity, for example. Phoenix is too large and will be travelling too quickly to use airbags, and so will have to attempt a soft landing on what Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, living up to the second word in its name, has revealed to be in parts rocky and even bouldered terrain.
I feel attached to Phoenix because of an amazing day I spent with the team behind her in Tucson a year or so ago. If the thought of those seven minutes of fear is keeping me awake, what must it be doing to the team who’ve been working on MPL and Phoenix for a decade or more?
Mars has a reputation for being an awkward planet to land on, and the overall success rate – especially when you compare it to that for Venus, which should be a much harder prospect – is surprisingly low. In the UK, I don’t think anyone who followed the story of Beagle 2 will ever forget it. Beagle 2 was an amazingly audacious project, attached to ESA’s Mars Express (which has, it shouldn’t be forgotten, been a wonderful success) designed to jump over several steps in NASA’s ‘follow the water’ strategy for Mars. While Phoenix is part of a series of missions designed to identify the possibility of life on Mars, find the best locations and then finally test there, the good ship Beagle tried to scoop the prize first time.
You know the punch line, I imagine, but there is good news. Many of the instruments and innovation that went on and into Beagle are being incorporated into Exomars, the European rover scheduled for launch in 2013. Exomars looks rather like its American cousins, Spirit and Opportunity, with six wheels and a tall mast with cameras on it, but it will carry a different set of instruments being less of a robot geologist and more of a robot astrobiologist.
I’ve been following the Exomars project for at least a couple of years now, and – apart from being scared – that’s the other reason I’ve avoided a career involving strapping lovingly built instruments on top of rockets. The Hubble Space Telescope was first conceived in the late 1970s and launched in 1990, for example. On both sides of the Atlantic planetary scientists are attempting to decide whether the next mission to the outer Solar System will go to Jupiter and the icy oceans of Europa, or to Saturn for Titan’s methane rain and the fountains of Enceledus. Despite the huge efforts being undertaken, I’ve spoken to no one who believes the mission will launch in less than 15 years.
Devoting half of your research life to a project and then having to watch, helpless, as it launches and then plummets through the Martian atmosphere? I’d almost rather be back in my 3rd year quantum physics exam. Almost….