Mars Missions See Delays, New Missions Planned

Weather conditions on Earth and Mars are plaguing two JPL missions. The Phoenix Mars Lander, which had a scheduled launch Friday, has now been postponed to Saturday at 3:02 a.m. PST. The delay is due to severe weather at the Kennedy Space Center, while the rovers Opportunity and Spirit are still battling a severe dust storm on the Martian surface.

Severe weather conditions surrounded the Kennedy Space Center launch pad on Tuesday afternoon delaying the second stage fueling. The Phoenix is planned to arrive on Mars in the spring of 2008. The spacecraft is unusual in a few ways including that it has used some hardware from a canceled 2001 Mars Lander mission. It will also use a type of soft landing that has not been done since the Viking landing a decade ago. Instead of landing using air bags, as the rovers did, the Phoenix will have retro-rockets that decelerate as the spacecraft touches down onto the northern hemisphere of the planet. The Lander will use its robotic arm to dig into the ground and analyze the soil. The launch delay will not affect the spring arrival.

A more serious problem is the Martian sand storms that are affecting the rovers on the planet's surface. Dust in the atmosphere is now settling on Opportunity's solar panels and is affecting the rover's ability to convert sunlight into electricity. The storms have been active since early in July when the Opportunity had planned on entering Victoria crater to explore the Martian past. Since July 18, the rover has been using a very low power regimen. This week, scientists and engineers expressed more concern about the continuing dust storms. While Opportunity is battling the storm at Victoria, Spirit is facing the same problems at Gusev Crater.

As the weather battle on Mars continues, another press conference was held to highlight some new missions and a new way of looking at some old missions.

"We are looking to get more out of the budget by holding costs down and improving productivity," stated Alan Stern, associate administrator for the Science Mission Director at NASA. "Getting more out of our budget is crucial."

With that theory in mind, NASA administration has looked at future and present projects, including many that are at JPL, and reworked budgets as well as reuse old spacecraft. Both JPL's Deep Impact and Stardust spacecrafts will be reused for other missions. Normally after a spacecraft's mission is complete it is put into hibernation. However, now the spacecraft are going to be resurrected to explore other nearby areas in the solar system.

Deep Impact was a spacecraft that split in two with one part slamming into a comet while the other took pictures. The fly-by craft shut down after its data was retrieved. It will now reawaken to return to the same comet its sister craft slammed into in order to record anything different from the first encounter. This is the first time a spacecraft will return to a comet.

Another announcement was made concerning Cassini. JPL scientists and engineers are busy determining the risk factor of flying the Cassini spacecraft into a plume of unknown liquid that is spouting from Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons. Cassini has been sending back some history-making photos of Saturn's rings and moons. JPL scientists have long been fascinated with the plumes that shot out from the surface of Enceladus.

"We think the plumes are up to 90 percent water," said Jim Green, director of planetary division.

The 10 percent may be made of methane or ammonia, however they are not certain of the makeup. The JPL team is now evaluating what the risk would be to fly the Cassini spacecraft through the plume, capturing the particles and analyzing them. The team is expected to give their answer to NASA in about two months.

The next fly-by of Enceladus is scheduled for March 2008.

JPL also has plans for a lunar platform mission to study the moon's surface. This will be in conjunction with NASA's push to revisit the moon with both manned and unmanned spacecraft.

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