Of course we’ve all heard and seen the fantastic news of NASA’s Phoenix lander making a successful three point landing on the red planet. The primary goal of the Mars Phoenix Mission is to detect life or the traces of it. However a secondary goal is to measure the weather at the surface continuously over a long period of time.
Today in a group of raw images returned from the lander is the first photo of the weather station mast after deployment. I’m pleased to present it here:
On further inspection though I note that there appears to be something dangling from the top portion of the sensor apparatus, see the arrow:
I don’t know if this is normal or if something has come loose and what we see is something dangling on the end of a wire. Given that this mission was put together on a low budget, using parts previously designed for other spacecraft, it makes me wonder if the weather station we see above isn’t simply this low tech device.
Here is a pictorial view of the lander and the position of the MET mast:
Here is a description of the MET station from Wikipedia:
The Meteorological Station (MET) will record the daily weather during the course of the Phoenix mission. It is equipped with a wind indicator and pressure and temperature sensors to do so. It is also equipped with lidar (laser imaging detection and ranging), which will be used to find the amount of dust particles in the air. It was designed in Canada and supported by the Canadian Space Agency and a team headed by York University The Geological Survey of Canada will oversee the science operations of the station, which was built by Canadarm maker MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. of Richmond, B.C.
The lidar laser is a passive Q-switched Nd:YAG laser with the dual wavelengths of 1064 nm and 532 nm. It operates at 100 Hz with a pulse width of 10 ns. The lidar is vertically pointing. The scattered light is received by two detectors and operates in both analog and photon counting modes.
All types of backscattering (for example Rayleigh scattering) are the basic effect used for the lidar. With the delay between the pulse and the light reflected by the particles in the atmosphere the distance is calculated. Additional information can be obtained from backscattered light. The polarization makes it possible to discriminate between ice and dust. The line width is an indicator for the Brownian motion of the particles and therefore an indicator for the temperature.
The lidar will get information about the three-dimensional structure of the planetary boundary layer by investigating the dissipation of dust, ice, fog and clouds in the local atmosphere. The wind velocity and temperatures will be monitored over time and show the evolution of the atmosphere over time. Dust and ice contribution in the atmosphere and the formation of dust devils are in the science focus of the instrument.
Judging from experience in installing many weather stations myself, I’d venture a guess to say that the greatest effect on the long-term reliability of the MET station will be the dust. Very fine dust can penetrate and clog even the most carefully designed systems.
I assume there will be public weather data available at some point, and if so I’ll make it available here.