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In a hangar at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, left, workers conduct a steering test of the first stage of the Delta II rocket that will carry the Phoenix spacecraft. At right, the rocket's first stage displays the Phoenix mission emblem as well as that of the United Launch Alliance.
NASA photo by Kim Shiflett
In a hangar at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, left, workers conduct a steering test of the first stage of the Delta II rocket that will carry the Phoenix spacecraft. At right, the rocket's first stage displays the Phoenix mission emblem as well as that of the United Launch Alliance.

DECATUR TEAM SENDING SPACESHIP
TO PROBE FOR MARTIAN LIFE

Delta II to launch Mars probe

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com ∑ 340-2435

"Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip ... the Gorgon groups of tentacles ... the extraordinary intensity of the immense eyes ..."

Steve Walker, a Delta II production technician at Decatur's United Launch Alliance, doesn't expect the image dreamed up by H.G. Wells in "War of the Worlds" to be broadcast from Mars, but he's proud of his role in the upcoming launch of a NASA Mars probe.

Walker, 46, was part of a team that assembled the Delta II rocket that will launch the $420 million Mars Phoenix Lander to its destination 171 million miles away.

"Our team is sending this thing to do amazing, amazing things," Walker said. "There's very few people in the world that get to build rockets. It's pretty cool doing it."

Walker plans to watch the launch, either on television or by Internet, as he does all launches in which he played a part. He said he will continue to follow the mission, anxiously awaiting any discoveries after its projected Mars landing in May 2008.

"It's an awesome feeling when you watch them lift off," Walker said. "I can't explain it. You're seeing your work taking off that pad. It's just an awesome feeling."

Walker is part of a team that tests the hydraulic, propulsion and electrical systems of the Delta II.

Scientists don't expect the Phoenix to find creatures with Gorgon tentacles and V-shaped mouths, but a major goal of the mission is to study whether life could exist on Mars.

Exploration confirmed the existence of ice on the planet, and there is some evidence that small amounts of water near the surface may remain in a melted state. With apologies to H.G. Wells, that creates the possibility that life — probably in the form of microbes — exists.

By digging below the surface, Phoenix will analyze the icy soil to determine whether conditions could support life.

The spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin Corp., will be sealed in the Delta II's nose cone at launch. It is surrounded by an aeroshell to protect it during the descent to Mars.

The 772-pound lander is packed with technological marvels.

  • An 8-foot robotic arm will dig into the ground for samples, which the craft will analyze on-board. A powered rasp on the arm will obtain core samples.

  • A camera on the robotic arm will take color pictures of the soil and ice.

  • Two analyzers will study the samples. One will heat the samples in tiny ovens and measure how much water vapor, carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds the samples emit. Another will use microscopes and electrochemistry cells to determine the samples' physical characteristics. The microscopes will reveal features as small as one one-thousandth the width of a human hair.

  • A stereo imager, mounted on a mast, will take high-resolution color images of the terrain, and possibly of Gorgon-tentacled Martians.

  • A meteorological station will monitor changes in water abundance, dust, temperature and wind speeds.

    These gadgets must be robust to survive the Martian climate. High winds, dust storms and whirlwinds are common. Temperatures range from 200 degrees below zero to 80 degrees above zero in a single day, which is slightly longer than an Earth day.

    Mars is about half the size of Earth, and has 38 percent of its gravitational pull.

    Arctic plains

    The lander's destination is in the arctic plains of Mars, believed by NASA to hold the greatest promise of ice accumulations. It will search for organic compounds, most likely to exist in ice, that are necessary to support life. Two spacecraft that NASA sent to Mars in 1976 found no evidence of the compounds.

    Decatur's contribution to the mission, the Delta II, is 130 feet tall. Previous Delta IIs launched other Mars missions, including Mars Odyssey, the twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Mars Pathfinder and Mars Global Surveyor.

    This mission will use the 7925 model of Delta II, which has a liquid-fueled first stage with nine strap-on solid-fuel boosters, a liquid-fueled second stage and a solid-fuel third stage.

    Its first-stage engine provides 200,000 pounds of thrust. Each booster adds another 100,000 pounds of thrust.

    Before joining the Decatur plant in 2001, Walker worked at a machine-tool shop in Gadsden.

    "I didn't get to work on anything even remotely close to as interesting there," he laughed.

    The lander also has a microphone.

    Its planned use is to record sounds of the descent to the Martian surface, but who knows what Walker and the rest of us will hear in those first transmissions back to Earth? Will we hear the strange cries recorded by Wells in 1898?

    "It was a sobbing alternation of two notes, 'Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla,' keeping on perpetually."

    See the launch

    A live feed of video from the missionís control room at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station will be carried by NASA TV Media Channel between 2:30 a.m. and 6 a.m. CDT on Friday, and at www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv.

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