Space, Physics, and Math

How the Phoenix Lander Hit the Brakes (Soccer Version)

The Mars-bound spacecraft had seven minutes to slow from a blazing Mach 16 to the pace of a gentle breeze – or face destruction.

August 15, 2008

In mythology, the Phoenix is a bird that destroys itself only to rise again from its own ashes. Despite this namesake, resurrection was not an option for the Phoenix lander. If anything went wrong during the $420 million machine’s perilous, multistage landing procedure, there would be no second chances. As such, scientists were mighty anxious as the craft neared its Red Planet destination after a 422 million mile (679 million kilometer) journey that began in August 2007.

Researchers designed Phoenix to probe Mars’ north polar region for signs of water to help answer questions about the planet’s history and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. But first the spacecraft had to survive a rapid plummet through the atmosphere that scientists had taken to calling the “seven minutes of terror.” Several days before the imminent rendezvous, Phoenix’s velocity began increasing as Mars’ gravity pulled it in. Then, on May 25, 2008, while still high above the rust-colored world, the craft jettisoned its cruiser stage and started its descent. What happened next? Watch the video and see for yourself.

One twist, though: for the sake of analogy, let’s say that the Phoenix spacecraft is a soccer ball, the Martian atmosphere is a soccer field and that there’s a goalie at the other end waiting to try and “save” Phoenix from annihilation, should the landing procedures fail.

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