Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Descent of the Phoenix

'In a sense, right here in the backyard of the L.A. Times, you have what some of us say is the center of the universe," says Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. "We have 19 spacecraft across the solar system right now. For the past decade, our country has had a permanent presence on Mars.

"When we say we're at the center," he continued, "we really mean it in the following sense: JPL is exploring the solar system and doing the telescope work exploring the stars. You have Caltech here, which is the premier organization for astronomy. Look at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena. And if you go back 100 years, the basic understanding of the expanding universe happened because of the telescopes on Mt. Wilson. The Keck Foundation, which funds the Keck telescope in Hawaii, is headquartered in L.A. So really, no other place in the world has contributed more to our understanding of the universe and the solar system than this region within 25 miles of downtown L.A."

Elachi's successful run is up for another test this afternoon, when the Phoenix mission attempts a risky touchdown close to the Martian north pole 150 million miles away. Shown above is a drawing depicting the descent of the Phoenix lander. As the lander's name suggests, the project is built on technology resurrected from canceled and lost missions, and the prospect of catastrophe (so far, more than half of all missions to the Red Planet has ended in failure) is always looming.

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