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Coming Soon to a Cineplex Far, Far Away

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phoenix_hype.jpg It's not exactly
Indiana Jones, but with Seven Minutes of Terror, NASA has rolled out the blockbuster treatment for its new Mars mission, the Phoenix Mars Lander -- headed for a dust-up on the Red Planet's north pole around Sunday suppertime. The video's title refers to how long NASA engineers will have to bite their fingernails while their $450 million spacecraft decelerates from its 12,000 mph cruising speed to a dead stop. The ship's hull will reach some 900 degrees as it plows through the upper Martian atmosphere. At 8 miles above terra (mars-a?) firma, a round, yellow-and-red parachute will stream out and slow the craft to about 250 mph. But that's still pretty fast. And so, like Indy jumping off a truck and straight onto a horse, at less than a minute before impact, the lander will jettison its parachute and let loose with its array of 12 thrusters. With any luck, Phoenix's computer pilot will keep the jets pointed at the ground, slowing the craft to 5 mph. One way or another, it'll come to a stop. The nail-biter part will be whether anything gets broken. All this is clearly explained in "Seven Minutes" by the engineers themselves. Although be warned: you do have to endure that frenetic visual style -- shaky cameras, incessant, 3-second cuts -- that directors must think makes science cooler, if not any easier to understand. You do have to admire NASA's routine approach to the audacious. Any work plan where one of the middle steps is " Likely blackout period as hot plasma surrounds spacecraft" gets my support. They estimate it will all be over by 7:53:52 p.m. Eastern time. (That's plus or minus 46 seconds.) The robotic ship will lie low for 20 minutes as the dust settles. After that, out come the solar panels, and then a tentative robot arm to dig in the polar Martian soil. Over the next three months, Phoenix will analyze the soil for water and the rudiments of life, digging down about an inch every two weeks. But the worst part, presumably, will be the first 15 minutes after touchdown. That's how long it takes an "All Clear" radio signal to travel the 250 million miles back to Earth. A long time for an engineer to hold her breath. (An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the date of the landing event. The landing is scheduled for Sunday, May 25th.)
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