Mission scientists and engineers erupted in applause as the Phoenix Lander arrived safely on Mars May 25, 2008. After traveling 422 million miles to study water and the planet's potential habitability, the 772-pound spacecraft flew in like a bullet, landing unscathed and ready for work.
For ECE alumni Ed Sedivy (BS '79) and Larry Ellis (BS '81), that monumental day marked a highpoint in their careers. Sedivy and Ellis are among six Colorado State electrical and computer engineering alumni who have worked since 2003 to make the Phoenix Mars Mission a reality. The alumni and their colleagues are responsible for equipping the Lander with some of the most advanced and sophisticated technology ever sent to Mars.
Phoenix spent more than five months on Mars digging and scooping the Red Planet's soil. Among its breakthrough results, the mission verified the presence of water and ice on the Martian subsurface. Unlike other landers and rovers that have detected acidic dirt with sulfates indicative of volcanic activity, the findings also revealed alkaline in the soil with carbonates and clay minerals. "The soil is very similar to what you'll find on Earth in cold, dry climates such as Antarctica and the Andes," said Sedivy.
Utilizing the first atomic force microscope with a camera ever used outside Earth, the spacecraft's robotic arm captured 25,000 pictures from panoramic vistas to microscopic close-ups of the soil. The Lander also collected atmospheric data with an innovative LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) instrument. For the first time ever, Phoenix witnessed snow falling and frost on the ground, a surprise to mission scientists.
The Phoenix Mars Lander was designed and built for NASA by Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona in partnership with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Lockheed Martin, and the Canadian Space Agency. The spacecraft far surpassed its planned operational life of three months, exceeding its design life by two-thirds. The Lander, which worked for a total of 152 Martian days, sent its last signal to the mission team on November 2.
Alumnus Ed Sedivy led the Lockheed Martin engineering team in designing, constructing, and testing the Phoenix spacecraft. Sedivy won a 2008 Breakthrough Innovator Award from Popular Mechanics for his team's work on the mission. Alumnus Larry Ellis led Lockheed's software engineering team to create flawless systems for the spacecraft. Throughout all phases of the mission, ECE alumni and their Lockheed Martin teammates closely monitored Phoenix's health by connecting their spacecraft operations centers with those at the JPL and the University of Arizona.
"This project has been the highlight of my career," said Sedivy. "I can honestly say that my electrical engineering education has prepared me for the challenges we have faced along the way." He added, "My message to current students is that perseverance pays off."
Photos courtesy NASA/JPL/Corby Waste; Photo illustration courtesy of Lockheed Martin