Though signals from NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander have stopped because of dust storms and limited sunlight, University researchers who contributed to the mission are continuing their search for conditions favorable to life on the Red Planet by analyzing the data sent back by the lander.
Launched by National Aeronautics Space Administration on Aug. 4, 2007, the Phoenix lander reached the northern region of Mars in May and has studied the planet’s water history, climate and the different layers of its surface.
Rackham student Manish Mehta was one of the University researchers who contributed to the lander’s mission to Mars. Prior to the launch date, Mehta spent three years working on the mission — five minutes of the mission, to be precise.
“It was the most important five minutes of the mission,” he said.
Mehta’s group, led by Nilton Renno, a professor in the Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences Department, worked on the spacecraft’s landing on the planet’s surface. The landing was considered especially important because NASA had previously lost contact with a previous rover because of complications during the landing in 1998.
“Not only was I involved, but there were 60 (or) 70 engineers who analyzed all aspects of what could go wrong,” Mehta said.
One of NASA’s main goals for the project is the search for life outside of Earth. Experts agree that for life to exist, there must be a source of energy, carbon-based compounds and liquid water.
“The goal was to look for water on Mars, but to really think about liquid water, because that’s one of the requirements for life to develop,” Renno said.
From experimentation and data collection on the atmosphere of Mars, Renno predicted that the rover would land on surface layers that consisted of salt and ice. A NASA orbiter detected hints of ice on the Red Planet in 2002 and the Phoenix mission confirmed its presence.
Renno also proposed that the motion of landing would blast dirt away from underneath the rover and churn up the layers of salty ice and dirt, splashing the rover.
“The evidence is clear that we have droplets of liquid water under the Phoenix lander,” he said.
Renno said finding liquid water underneath the rover has many implications for past or current life on Mars.
“If my idea is right — if we really found liquid water — this would be the first place outside Earth we found liquid water to surface,” he said. “And for bacterial life to develop, you don’t need much — just a few drops of liquid water is enough.”
From its position further north on Mars than any prior spacecraft had been, the lander also observed snow falling from clouds.
Though the lander didn’t find any evidence of life on Mars, Renno said the central question was more about the conditions that would lead to life.
“We only know of one place where life exists — Earth,” he said. “But if you have the right conditions, would life evolve on most places or not? Is there anything unique about life on Earth?”
The University’s team also predicted how the jets on the lander would affect its surrounding soil after touching down, assisted in getting soil samples from the Mars surface to the lab inside the lander and used numerical testing to predict the lander’s endurance.
Renno’s team has already contracted with NASA for the next mission to Mars, which will launch in October 2009 and will continue examination of many of the same components of the Red Planet from the Phoenix mission.
Scientists say there is a chance the current lander could resume communications if the weather clears on Mars, but the chances of that are slim.
The results of the mission have been submitted to the peer-reviewed journal Science for publication.