Phoenix: Behind the Scenes

Peter Smith with 3D glasses
Peter Smith, lead scientist for NASA's Phoenix lander, shows off his 3D glasses — and a spiffy Hawaiian shirt — at the mission's science operations center in Tucson, Arizona.
S&T: J. Kelly Beatty
NASA's Phoenix lander is well into its 90-day mission of clawing, sniffing, and tasting the north-polar plain of Mars.

Meanwhile, back at the science operations center in Tucson, Arizona, mission scientists have gotten used to the quirky and constantly changing work shifts necessitated by a Martian day, or sol, that's 39.6 minutes longer than a day on Earth.

Leading the international scientific team is Peter Smith, who has gained a reputation not only as an expert manager of interplanetary explorations — but also as an unabashedly enthusiastic and fun-loving leader who's having the time of his life.

Come along and share some candid moments captured during two trips to cover the mission for Sky & Telescope. The tour begins on the next page.

Phoenix officials celebrate
There are smiles all around at an impromptu press briefing at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory shorty after Phoenix's successful landing on May 25th. From left are: Barry Goldstein (JPL project manager); Ed Weiler (NASA associate administrator for space science); Ed Sedivy (Lockheed Martin Space Systems); Doug McCuistion (manager of NASA's Mars program); and Peter Smith (Phoenix principal investigator).
S&T: J. Kelly Beatty


In the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's press room, cub reporters mingled with veteran journalists to deliver news of Phoenix's success to a global audience.
S&T: J. Kelly Beatty


Phoenix press conference at JPL
For a few days after Phoenix landed, reporters from around the world flocked to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's von Karman Auditorium in Pasadena, California, to get the latest word on how the spacecraft was doing.
S&T: J. Kelly Beatty


Peter Smith and Barry Goldstein
Principal investigator Peter Smith and JPL project manager Barry Goldstein field questions about the Phoenix mission during a press conference at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
S&T: J. Kelly Beatty


Peter Smith amid reporters
Science in the spotlight! Peter Smith, principal investigator for the Phoenix mission, is swarmed by reporters at the conclusion of a landing-day press conference at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
S&T: J. Kelly Beatty


Peter Smith and Steven Squyres
Peter Smith (left) and Steve Squyres were happy campers once Phoenix touched down on Mars. Squyres is principal investigator for Spirit and Opportunity, the long-lived Mars Exploration Rovers that continue to operate after more than 3½ years on the Red Planet.
S&T: J. Kelly Beatty


Phoenix science center
The science operations center, or SOC, for the Phoenix mission is a windowless building nestled amid residences and small businesses on a quiet street in Tucson, Arizona. There's room to grow inside, as the University of Arizona hopes to gain scientific oversight for future space missions.
S&T: J. Kelly Beatty


Phoenix mural in Tucson
The science operations center for Phoenix would be just another inconspicuous office building — were it not for the enormous, wildly colored mural that adorns its southern exterior. Measuring 60 by 20 feet, it's the work of University of Arizona professor Alfred Quiroz and students from his fall 2006 mural-painting class.
S&T: J. Kelly Beatty


William Boynton
William Boynton is the lead scientist for an experiment aboard Phoenix called the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer. TEGA heats up samples in steps to determine whether they contain volatile compounds — including water and simple hydrocarbons. Boynton uses the illuminated blue panel seen behind him to help stay awake and alert during the team's frequent shift changes.
S&T: J. Kelly Beatty


Rob Manning and Alfred McEwen
Veteran mission manager Rob Manning (left) discusses Phoenix's descent to the Martian surface with Alfred McEwen, lead scientist for the powerful HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter.
S&T: J. Kelly Beatty


Selby Cull
Selby Cull, a former editorial intern at Sky & Telescope is thrilled to be working on the Phoenix mission as a member of the team that operates the craft's robotic arm. Behind her is a full-size mockup of the lander.
S&T: J. Kelly Beatty


Amy Shaw with simulated Mars dirt
Amy Shaw, a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis, carves up dried-up samples of simulated Martian soil. The Phoenix science team has been perplexed by the unusually cohesive character of the dirt surrounding the lander.
S&T: J. Kelly Beatty


Phoenix mockup and surface map
The science team uses this full-size mockup of the Phoenix spacecraft, together with a color-coded map of surface height and rocks mimicking those in its vicinity, to gauge how to move the craft's 7-foot-long robotic arm.
S&T: J. Kelly Beatty


Phoenix engineering testbed
By using this engineering model of Phoenix, which sits atop a detailed replica of the landing site, scientists can carefully choreograph the arm movements and other activities that are radioed daily to the craft's onboard computer.
S&T: J. Kelly Beatty


Phoenix press room in Tucson
At 3 a.m., the science operations center's press room is dead quiet. But just down the hall, Phoenix scientists are gearing up for a full shift of activity.
S&T: J. Kelly Beatty


Phoenix science team
It's showtime! Phoenix's science team gathers at 4 a.m. for an update briefing before getting to work on analyzing results radioed by the spacecraft and planning the next sequence of commands for it to execute.
S&T: J. Kelly Beatty


Phoenix model on globe
In a public area of Phoenix's science operations center, a small paper model rests on a globe of Mars to mark the craft's location. At this far-north latitude, Phoenix is not expected to survive the bitter winter cold that will overtake it in a few months.
S&T: J. Kelly Beatty

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