NASA's Mars Polar Lander arrived at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday, October 1, to begin final preparations for launch January 3.
The lander will be the second of two Mars spacecraft to be launched on Delta II vehicles this winter. It will follow Mars Climate Orbiter, scheduled for launch December 10.
The spacecraft arrived aboard an Air Force C-17 cargo plane which landed at KSC's Shuttle Landing Facility early Thursday following its flight from the Lockheed Martin Astronautics plant in Denver, CO.
The spacecraft is designed to touch down on the Martian surface near the northernmost boundary of the south pole. This is near the edge of Mars' thin sheet of carbon dioxide ice which will have receded by the time the lander arrives in December 1999, late spring in the southern hemisphere of Mars. The mission's objective is to study the water cycle at the Martian south pole. The lander also will help scientists learn more about climate change and current resources on Mars, studying frosts, dust, water vapor and condensates in the Martian atmosphere.
The Mars Polar Lander is to be readied for launch in NASA's Spacecraft Assembly and Encapsulation Facility-2 located in the KSC Industrial Area. Among the activities to be performed will be a functional test of the science instruments and the basic spacecraft subsystems. Checkout of the communications system will be performed, including a verification of the spacecraft's ability to send data to controllers on Earth via the Mars Climate Orbiter and the tracking stations of the Deep Space Network. The spacecraft's radar, used during the final descent, will be installed and the solar arrays will be attached and tested.
The Deep Space 2 microprobes will also be installed on the lander's cruise ring. These two probes, developed at JPL under NASA's New Millennium Program, will test technology and instruments to search for water several feet below the Martian surface. The spacecraft will then be ready for mating with the cruise stage and parachutes used for the trip through the lower Martian atmosphere will then be installed.
Next, the spacecraft will be fueled with its attitude control fuel and undergo spin balance testing. Finally, on December 15, the spacecraft will be mated to a Star 48 solid propellant upper stage booster and then prepared for transportation to the launch pad.
Meanwhile, at Launch Complex 17, the Delta II rocket will be undergoing erection and prelaunch checkout on Pad B. The first stage is scheduled to be installed into the launcher on November 23. Four solid rocket boosters will be attached around the base of the first stage beginning on November 25. The second stage will be mated atop the first stage on December 2, and the fairing will be hoisted into the clean room of the pad's mobile service tower December 3.
The Mars Polar Lander with its upper stage booster will be transported to Complex 17 on December 21 for hoisting atop the Delta and mating to the second stage. After the spacecraft undergoes a state of health check, the spacecraft will be closed out for flight and on December 29 the two halves of the Delta nose fairing placed around it. At liftoff, the spacecraft weighs 567 kilograms (1,270 pounds), is 1.06 meter (3.6 feet) tall and 3.6 meters (12 feet) long.
Launch is planned to occur at the opening of an instantaneous launch window on January 3 at 3:31 p.m. EST. The nominal launch period is divided into an eight-day primary period January 3-10, followed by a six-day secondary launch period January 11-16. The planetary window closes on January 27, 1999.
After an 11-month cruise phase, the Mars Polar Lander will arrive at the planet and begin its descent to the surface. An imager onboard the spacecraft will take high-resolution photographs during the descent to the surface to establish the geological and physical context of the landing site. A robotic arm will be powered up soon after landing to begin exploring this unknown region with an elaborate, 2-meter-long (6.6-foot) robotic scoop, which will dig shallow trenches to further investigate Mars' climatic history.
The lander also will conduct soil analysis experiments on the surface, using a small "chemistry set" and "oven" to determine the thermal properties and evolved gasses in frozen water and dust. Martian surface temperatures, winds, pressure and the amount of dust in the atmosphere will be measured on a daily basis, while a small microphone records the sounds of wind gusts or mechanical operations onboard the spacecraft.
The Mars Polar Lander and Mars Climate Orbiter missions are managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, DC. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA. Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Denver CO, is JPL's space industry partner in the mission. Launch is the responsibility of NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center. The Boeing Company is KSC's space industry partner in launch operations.
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