Space & Planetary Science: July 2007 Archives

Phoenix Launch Delayed

NASA Postpones Phoenix Launch

"Friday's scheduled launch of NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket has been postponed 24 hours. The two available launch times on Saturday, Aug. 4, are 5:26:34 a.m. and 6:02:59 a.m. EDT."

Editor's update: According to Doug McCuistion, Mars Exploration Program director, speaking at a press conference today regarding the potential problems with the MARDI instrument and testing of the Phoenix lander "It is important to remember that we bought a used car".

One Image Planned During Descent of Phoenix , NASA JPL

"The issue is not the camera itself, which is capable of taking multiple downward-looking images of the landing area during the final three minutes of flight. Tests of the assembled lander found that an interface card has a small possibility of triggering loss of some vital engineering data if it receives imaging data during a critical phase of final descent. That possibility is considered an unacceptable risk, and the potential problem with the interface card was identified too late for changing hardware. The card has circuitry that routes data from various parts of the payload."

Editor's note: Although NASA and all of the mission participants are very shy about saying this, Phoenix was originally called the Mars Surveyor 2001 lander - a spacecraft with significant hardware commonality with the Mars Polar Lander. As you may recall, MPL crashed into Mars when the jolt of its engines firing made some sensors think the spacecraft had landed - so it shut the engines off - and ... splat. The main culprit was found to be incomplete integrated testing prior to launch.

It's great that they did more integrated testing this time, but I have to wonder why they waited to test such things in an integrated fashion where results from that testing could not result in a hardware fix, but rather not using part of the spacecraft's hardware - thus diminishing its capability.

And although the "science" won't be affected once Phoenix is on the surface, this is a case where the spacecraft's overall objectives will not be met - despite the spin NASA is trying to put on it. Otherwise, why was a descent imager capable of multiple images included on the spacecraft in the first place?

But wait - NASA/JPL is saying that "the mission will still be capable of accomplishing all of its science goals."

I am confused. This mission fact sheet at the University of Arizona says: "Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) - Built by Malin Space Science Systems MARDI plays a key science role during Phoenix's descent to the Martian arctic. Beginning just after the aeroshell is jettisoned at an altitude of about 5 miles, MARDI will acquire a series of wide-angle, color images of the landing site all the way down to the surface."

And further, this page at Malin Space Science Systems says "The Phoenix Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) will provide a context in which all other Phoenix observations can be fully understood. Among the most important questions to be asked about a spacecraft sitting on a planet is "Where is it?" and "Descent imaging provides a bridge between orbiter pictures, that tell us about regional and global scales, and lander images of very small, "micro-scale" attributes of the planet."

So what is it, NASA? Does this instrument play a key "science role" in this mission or doesn't it? You really need to be consistent with what you've said previously before you try and spin bad news into something a little more palatable.

Editor's update: Malin Space Science Systems was issued a stop work order on MARDI effective 1 June 2007.

NASA Dawn Mission Rescheduled for September Launch, NASA

"Primary reasons for the move were a combination of highly limited launch opportunities for Dawn in July and the potential impact to launch preparations for the upcoming Phoenix Mars Lander mission, set for early August. A September launch for Dawn maintains all of the science mission goals a July launch would have provided."

NASA Mars Program Threatened by Senate Funding Bill, Planetary Society

"It appears that the entire sum will be taken out of the Mars exploration budget, including $20 million from funds supporting the Mars Exploration Rovers. This could force NASA to shut down the Mars rovers at the end of the current fiscal year!"

Editor's note: "It appears" and "could force"? Sorry Lou, that's not quite what I am hearing from NASA and elsewhere here in Washington. While the Senate did take $30 million out of Mars reserves, the House did not do this in their version of the bill and between subsequent conference action on this bill and inherent flexibility within NASA's Mars program, this is not expected to be present in the final Appropriations bill.

Besides, what kind of message would Congress be sending out by singling out a single, small item such as the rovers - just as Opportunity is poised to enter Victoria Crater - at the same time as they are going out of their way to tell people how they have substantially increased the money they feel NASA deserves?

The Planetary Society has been (rightfully and to their credit) complaining about space science cuts. So, guess what: Congress strongly reverses this trend - and yet the Planetary Society still seems to be missing the bigger picture.


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This page is an archive of entries in the Space & Planetary Science category from July 2007.

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