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Ending 2006

by Peter Smith

December 17, 2006 -

As 2006 comes to a close, I think back over the events that leave us poised for the final march to launch in August.  The spacecraft is currently in a vacuum chamber at Lockheed Martin in Denver where is it withstanding the harsh conditions that it will experience during the cruise to Mars.  After all, if some system of the spacecraft is ill qualified to withstand these conditions we want it to break now so that we can fix the problem.  So far, due to the diligence and dedication of the Lockheed engineering team there are only very minor problems that have occurred and they are easily fixed.  The Denver team has persevered despite 2 feet of snow this week that has made travel either dangerous or impossible.  The JPL team is carefully monitoring progress and checking to make sure that all requirements that have been placed on the spacecraft have been met or exceeded.

Early in 2007 we will repeat the environmental test with the spacecraft in its landed configuration under a Martian environment. Afterwards, we have a chance to upgrade our scientific instruments to their flight condition before finally enclosing the spacecraft in preparation for shipment to Cape Canaveral in Florida.  The instrument groups are all hard at work finishing the final touches to meet this last chance.  The science team is watching these final adjustments carefully to ensure that we get the best possible measurements returned from the Mars.  After all, this may be the last mission to the exciting polar region for a long time.

Speaking of science return, our landing site working group is busy analyzing the magnificent images that are being returned from the HiRISE experiment on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.  The first look in October showed that boulder fields were common in some of the areas that we thought would make good landing sites.  We are now discovering some low rock-density areas and planning to make our final selection by June.

The next year will see the completion of planning and training for the landed phase in the summer of 2008.  Our surface operations center in Tucson is fully functional now with engineering models of all the instruments being tested.  The first trenches were dug by the the robotic arm this month in preparation for scooping and delivering samples for our on-deck instruments.  The cruise and landing control rooms are being configured at Lockheed and JPL.  Landing safely remains our number one risk for the mission and is labeled the "six minutes of terror" for good reason.

Phoenix is technically sound and on schedule for launch in less than 225 days.  All in all it has been a great year.  I expect an better year in 2007 and wish the same for all of you.