The Phoenix Has Landed…with 7 Important Scientific Instruments

Nasa's Phoenix landed over a week ago on Mars.   You can read up on the landing at http://uanews.org/node/19859

The mission has a number of objectives, including 1) Studying the history of water on Mars by examining water-ice below the martian surface and 2) Determining if the  martian arctic soil could support life.  By digging into the soil and water-ice just below the surface and analyzing the chemistry of the soil and ice with robust instruments, scientists will better understand the history of the martian arctic.   You can read up more on the mission at: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/phoenix/main/index.html

I was curious about what type of scientific instruments were aboard the lander so I did some research.   Here is a list of the key instruments on board.The Phoenix lander will explore Mars's north polar region, where water ice may occasionally melt and provide the conditions conducive to life (Illustration: NASA/JPL/UA/Lockheed Martin)

  1. Mars Descent Imager.  The job of this instrument is already done.  During Phoenix’s descent,  it took a series of wide-angle, color images of the landing site and surrounding area all the way down to the surface.
  2. Surface Stereoscopic Imager.  This instrument is a high tech stereo camera that will provide high-resolution, stereoscopic, panoramic images of the surrounding landscape.  It will help identify potential geological content, provide range maps in support of digging operations, and make atmospheric dust and cloud measurements.
  3. Robotic Arm.   Once a digging site is picked, the Robotic Arm will dig and collect soil and water-ice samples.
  4. Robotic Arm Camera.  This camera is attached to the Robotic Arm just above the scoop.  It will take close-up, full-color images of (1) the ground/rocks/landscape, (2) potential soil and water-ice samples, (3) samples that have been collected in the scoop and (4) the floor and side-walls of the trenches that have been dug in order to examine fine-scale texturing and layering. 
  5. Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer.  This unique instrument will serve both as a high-temperature oven and a mass spectrometer instrument that scientists will use to analyze ice and soil samples.  Once the Robotic Arm delivers samples to this instrument, the oven temperature will increase.  The gases that are boiled out of the sample will be piped to a mass spectrometer for chemical analysis.
  6. Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA).  This is a combination of several scientific instruments all wrapped into one.  By mixing small amounts of soil in water, MECA can determine important chemical properties like acidity, saltiness, and composition.  MECA has a built-in microscope that can examine the soil grains to help determine their origin and mineralogy.  It also has special probes that when stuck into the soil determine the water and ice content.
  7. Meteorological Station.  This instrument records the daily weather using temperature and pressure sensors, as well as a light detection and ranging instrument.  This information will help scientists determine how water is cycled between the solid and gas phases on the martian artic plains.

You can read up more on the instruments at http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/phoenix/spacecraft/index.html