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Last Updated: Monday, 6 August 2007, 12:56 GMT 13:56 UK
Phoenix diary: Mission to Mars
On 4 August, the US space agency (Nasa) launched a mission called Phoenix to land on the northern plains of Mars.

Dr Tom Pike, from Imperial College London, is writing a diary of his experiences as a team member working on the Phoenix project in America.


Phoenix on Delta II rocket in the hours prior to launch, Tom Pike
The hours before launch were tense

We've been staying in a beach house in Cape Canaveral across the bay from the Phoenix launch site.

On Friday evening they rolled back the main gantry from the Delta II in preparation for launch. There's no mistaking where to look on a horizon bristling with launch structures - Phoenix is picked out with spotlights.

There's little sleep on Friday night - it's too tempting to go out on the balcony to gaze at the rocket. In any event, I'm off at two in the morning to do a live interview with the Today programme.

Phoenix launch, AP
Phoenix benefited from flawless weather conditions
It's a wild goose chase for a fabled sound studio at Kennedy Space Center. I end up parked by a swamp talking on my mobile to the BBC's James Naughtie about the importance of the search for water on Mars.

But my mind is really on the Phoenix lander itself. Unlike most of the Phoenix team, the lander is tucked up asleep. It's resting under its air-conditioned cowling on top of the Delta II.

At half-past four in the morning - launch minus 60 minutes - we walk out along the beach in the dark to meet up with the Phoenix team at the launch party. Film crews from across the US are recording the build-up here and shoot where my kids have scrawled "GO PHOENIX" across the sand.

Launch conditions are superb - a nearly cloudless sky and a half moon so we can recognise old friends. We can even see Mars glowing enticingly. All our mobiles are on speaker to the live mission-control commentary.

As the countdown reaches ignition, the whole sky lights up as Phoenix rises above the bay, its solid boosters producing a perfectly symmetrical flame.

There's just one cloud in the sky and the Delta II hits it straight on, the blast wave blowing a smoke ring that will linger for hours after the launch. Just then the sound from the launch pad, four miles away, reaches us and we appreciate what we are now putting our instruments through.

Hanna and Sanjay stand in front of what remains of the rocket's exhaust, Tom Pike
Hanna and Sanjay stand in front of what remains of the rocket's exhaust
The solid boosters fall away as Phoenix passes across Orion, and we see the embers drift slowly into the Atlantic. Then Phoenix itself fades from view as it powers below the horizon on its route over Africa.

Champagne is waiting back at the beach house. As we walk back the smoke ring from the launch provides the backdrop.

With Nasa TV on in the background we gather to toast the next phase when the motors make a final burn to transfer Phoenix from Earth orbit onto its trajectory to Mars. But the champagne warms in my glass as a delay in communication prevents confirmation of this critical manoeuvre.

I feel a little sick - many of us have suffered the agony of just such a wait stretching out to infinity. But this time we're spared - Goldstone tracking station in California finally confirms first that we are now heading to Mars, and then that the Phoenix lander has woken up.

It had sensibly slept through the whole launch. We finally get to toast Phoenix as it stretches out its solar arrays for its nine-month journey to Mars.


On Thursday I travelled to Florida for the launch to Mars. I'll be joining Hanna and Sanjay, the other two members of the Imperial College London team.

The microscope station is also on the final leg of its long journey

Tomorrow, the Phoenix lander is scheduled to be launched to the northern plains of Mars.

Inside the microscope station on the lander are some ten discs of silicon, substrates from Imperial that have been carefully etched to hold Martian dust and soil.

These substrates are already well travelled.

From their birth in April last year in the microfabrication laboratory at Imperial, they first were flown over to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California to be mounted in the Phoenix microscope station.

The station then went to Colorado to be bolted onto the deck of the Phoenix lander.

The substrates' last trip on Earth was to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where they now sit on top of a Delta II rocket.

My journey on this mission has been even further, and taken much longer.

Intense search

Ten years ago, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Mike Hecht and I were kicking around the idea of how to image Mars at the microscopic scale.

Both our backgrounds were in studying semiconductors - we were used to looking right down to the size of atoms to understand the sensors we were developing.

Artist's impression of Phoenix spacecraft  Image: Nasa
Will land in Mars' frigid northern latitudes
Is to investigate whether ice sometimes melts enough to support life
Launch is from Cape Canaveral on Delta II rocket
Robotic arm digs through the soil to the water-ice underneath
Arm to deliver soil, ice samples to mission's experiments

The previous year, the world had been stunned by microscopic images of what looked like microfossils within a meteorite known to have come from Mars.

We knew just how to get these images on Earth, but could we come up with an instrument that would work on Mars?

We sketched up some designs and realised that if we combined an optical microscope with a much higher resolution imager we'd be able to get an overall picture and then zoom in to take a close-up to reveal all the detail.

We would be able to see the individual tiny grains of the dust and soil that cloak Mars. We could even image any microfossils.

But normally, zooming in to this high magnification takes a bench of equipment, and we needed something much lighter and smaller.

The atomic force microscope had been invented just 10 years ago then, but we were using it regularly to image the surfaces of our semiconductors. These microscopes looked like they could be adapted for use on Mars.

Fortunately Nasa agreed and we were asked to produce a microscope station to launch to Mars in 2001.

We needed help with the atomic force microscope, and we travelled across the US and Europe visiting companies and groups that might be able to provide one.

After a long search we ended up on the shores of a lake in Switzerland at the University of Neuchatel where Urs Staufer promised to lead a Swiss team in making an atomic force microscope to fit into our station.

The next couple of years of frenetic activity in Pasadena and Switzerland turned our sketches into reality.

Nervous launch

But just as we completed the microscope station, we heard that our mission was cancelled.

The silicon discs have been carefully etched

A lander identical to our 2001 version had just crashed into Mars, and we weren't going to fly until Nasa was sure we'd avoid the same fate.

It could have been a long wait, and I moved back to the UK partly to take my mind off all the effort that had brought us no closer to Mars.

But now, the wait is nearly over.

The Phoenix mission that arose from the ashes of the crashed and cancelled instruments of the last decade now sits on the launch pad in Florida.

On it, the Imperial College substrates are just one of the changes that the extra time has made possible.

Of course, the critical improvement must be to the landing system that apparently failed in 1999.

For now, though, the butterflies in the stomach will be quelled once we see the Delta II arc across the Atlantic on the start of its journey to Mars.


The first dress rehearsal for the Phoenix mission to Mars was deemed a success - but, to put it bluntly, we fluffed quite a few of our lines. We'll have to know the script better by next May when we land.

Hanna, Morten (c) and Tom (r), Tom Pike
Hanna, Morten (c) and Tom (r) went for a hike in the desert
The pace was crushing - by Friday, the stress of keeping the communication flow going between Earth and simulated Mars was getting to Hanna, one of the members of our team.

She's studying at Imperial College London for a doctorate - her PhD thesis will be on the microscope station currently sitting on top of a rocket in Florida.

Next week, the microscopes should start their nine-month journey as part of the Phoenix instruments sent by Nasa to Mars. At the test facility in Tucson, Arizona, she was working on commanding a clone of the microscope station during the dress rehearsal.

This meant writing computer code that should work for the first time on Mars. This was a tall order, but we deserved some tall drinks on Friday evening to help with decompression at the end of our week of tests.

Watering hole

We were up at six for a hike the next morning, before the Arizonan desert sun climbed above the canyon walls. We joined Morten Madsen, the world's expert on the magnetic properties of Mars dust.

Morten's group in Copenhagen has designed magnets for every lander sent to Mars in the last 10 years. We climb though desert terrain, but evidence of water was everywhere. This is what Phoenix will be searching for on Mars - the mantra of the mission is "follow the water".

As we trekked up the canyon, we could properly appreciate the mantra's significance.

Even though the riverbed at the base of the canyon was dry, the vegetation there was surprisingly lush. Much of life on Earth can readily survive long periods without water, if it sees moisture once in a while.

Compared with Tucson, the northern plains of Mars where Phoenix will land are extreme desert. We don't know when rain last fell there - it might be billions of years ago. But here is where spacecraft currently orbiting Mars have seen what looks like ice just under the surface.

A tale of two planets

The northern plains could hold the last remains of the lakes from an earlier, much wetter Mars. The two Mars rovers currently hunkered down under the dust storms enveloping the planet have seen direct evidence of Mars' watery history.

The ice could also be from a dusting of more recent snow that's worked itself into the Martian soil. If it occasionally melts, this ice could be the last desperate refuge of life that developed when Mars was a much more hospitable planet.

Last week, we returned briefly from the deserts of Arizona to the Thames river in London racing to drain last week's storms. The floods are devastating, but they're at one end of the range of conditions on a wet Earth that can nurture life.

Mars, by comparison, is now a wizened remnant of its former self. But if water once soaked the surface of Mars, we are hoping that Phoenix will land in just the right region to look at the frozen puddles that are left.


Last week, my son was part of a chaotic dress rehearsal of his primary school's production of "Fame".

This week, I heard the performance was a great success. But I missed it - I'm in Arizona as part of the first dress rehearsal of a mission to the surface of Mars.

Tom Pike  Image: STFC
Tom Pike has a science instrument on the Phoenix spacecraft
In just over two weeks, the Phoenix mission will be launching from Florida, heading to the polar regions of Mars.

It will land there to look for the water that should be present as ice just below the surface of the bleak northern plains. I'm part of the science team that will be looking closely, very closely, at what a robot arm will dig up as it cuts through the soil and ice.

But Phoenix will not land until next May, and, meanwhile, we've got a copy of the lander to understudy the rehearsal.

We're not staring from scratch. The lander and all the instruments on board have learnt most of their lines - we've already tested that they do what we want when they're commanded directly.

But this is the first time that Phoenix and the close to one hundred members of the science team are getting together to see how this might all work on Mars.

Twenty-five-hour day

We're all sitting in the Science Operations Center in Tucson - the science team is in a maze of operations rooms, the lander behind locked doors in a hanger on the other side of the building.

Just as during real operations on Mars, we get a chance to send commands to Phoenix once every Martian morning, and at the end of its Martian work day the lander sends back its data, images and readings from all it has done during the day.

As the Martian day lasts nearly 25 hours, we'll slowly lose synch with Earth time; but for this rehearsal we're starting gently at 0800, and finish close to midnight.

Operations for a Mars mission are a race against time. We have to work during the Martian night.

There's just a little more than 12 hours to look at what has come down from the last day's operations on the Red Planet before we have to send our final script for the following day to Phoenix.

With seven instruments on board the lander, all of the science team ends up having a critical job to do.

Today we've reached Sol Two, the second day of operations of Phoenix on the surface of Mars after a successful landing.

There have been some moments of chaos, but we've got back the first images of the Martian surface to help us choose where to start digging.

It almost feels like the real thing - there's even a fly-on-the-wall film crew. A clue that this is only a dress rehearsal - a corner of a tarpaulin is poking out from underneath the foot of the Phoenix lander.

Lift off for Nasa's Mars probe
04 Aug 07 |  Science/Nature
Nasa selects next Mars lander
05 Aug 03 |  Science/Nature
Next US Mars lander gets go-ahead
03 Jun 05 |  Science/Nature

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