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Order of the Phoenix: to fly to Mars

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla. -- The 1st Space Launch Squadron plans to launch the University of Arizona's (UA) Phoenix Mars Lander from pad 17A at Cape Canaveral AFS Saturday.

The mission will be Cape Canaveral's 249th launch of the DELTA-II booster by the United Launch Alliance, formerly Boeing.

Phoenix is the first Mars mission led by an academic institution and the first in NASA's Scout Program, an initiative for smaller, lower cost, completed spacecraft. The mission will further NASA's Mars Exploration Program whose long-term goals are to determine whether life ever existed on Mars, characterize the climate and geology of Mars and prepare for human exploration. Phoenix's scientific research, headed by the university's Dr. Peter Smith, is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Given that life as we know it requires water, and buoyed by the knowledge that certain bacterial spores can lie dormant in cold, dry, airless conditions for millions of years, scientists wonder whether Mars' subsurface harbors evidence of organic life. So, mission planners will land Phoenix in the Martian arctic, an area that has the possibility of 80 percent water-ice by volume within one foot of the surface.

The lander, approximately three feet in diameter, features a robotic arm that will dig up to three feet into Mars' subsurface and retrieve ice and soil samples while a camera mounted on the arm monitors the action. The samples will then be physically and chemically analyzed on the lander platform by some of the most sophisticated instruments ever sent to Mars.

These instruments were built collaboratively by the universities of Arizona and Texas at Dallas, the JPL, Switzerland's University of Neuchatel and the Canadian Space Agency.

Launch squadron personnel played an extensive mission assurance role from flight hardware receipt and check out to booster and spacecraft erection.

"We also man the launch pad for final milestones such as tower roll and final booster vehicle fueling," said Capt. Dwayne Florence, Maintenance Engineering Flight commander.

Electrical Engineer 2nd Lt. Jon McGuire performed one of the booster engineering walkdowns and said "weather posed a series of schedule setbacks, but we hope to pull through and make our launch window."

During terminal countdown, select officers and NCOs will go on-console to monitor the booster's vital signs and coordinate the 12-member launch crew. Booster Operations Controller 1st Lt. Cory Broussard will track and help to resolve any anomalies that occur during the tense countdown.

"It's hard to describe the sense of accomplishment when that baby roars off into space and it's really interesting to be part of a mission that could once and for all prove that life can be sustained on a planet other than earth," said Lieutenant Broussard.