Return to the Red Planet

May 27, 2008 at 9:12 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Sunday evening, after an eight month cruise, the Phoenix spacecraft blasted into the thin Martian atmosphere.  As it slowed down, it unfurled its parachute, on the way to the surface.  That’s standard procedure for a Martian landing.  But this time, for the first time ever, someone was watching.  The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, using its HIRISE camera, snapped a photo of the newest member of the Martian space fleet as it plummeted to the surface.  The result is specatular.

This amazing photograph makes it appear that the Phoenix spacecraft is parachuting directly into this huge crater.  But that is just an effect of perspective.  In reality, Phoenix landed miles in front of that crater, out on the bleak Martian arctic plains.

Another photo taken by the MRO orbiter on Monday shows Phoenix safely on the ground.  At the top, you can just make out the solar panels arrayed on either side of the spacecraft.  You can see how the Phoenix spacecraft thrusters blew away some of the fine dust, and left a darkened area where Phoenix touched down.  And below that, you can see where the blackened heatshield (which protected Phoenix as it entered the atmosphere) crashed into the surface.  And farther down, you can also see the backshell and white parachute, which were discarded as the Phoenix lander made its final approach.

And here is a photo from Phoenix itself, looking out across the arctic plains from ground level.

It is going to be fun following this mission over the next 3 to 6 months, as it digs into the Martian soil in a search for arctic ice.

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