A new level of cooperation between the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA is being tested. The ESA’s Mars Express mission control team will monitor NASA’s Phoenix lander during its entry, decent, landing phase (EDL). The Phoenix lander is scheduled to land on the surface of Mars on May 26, 2008.
The ESA says it will point Mars Express towards the planned entry trajectory of the Phoenix lander on May 25 and prepare to record data as the lander makes entry into the Martian atmosphere. The data recorded will be used to compare the actual entry profile with the predicted entry profile of the Phoenix lander.
Michel Denis, Spacecraft Operations Manager at ESOC said, “We have tested a specially designed slew for our spacecraft, and scheduled a series of data downloads immediately after Phoenix's landing; NASA will receive our recorded data about one hour later.”
Mission controllers from the ESA will use the Mars Express Lander Communications (MELACOM) system that was originally used to communicate with the Beagle 2 lander. The Beagle 2 lander separated from Mars Express in 2003 with no complications, but mission controllers were unable to make contact with the lander after it entered the Martian atmosphere.
Peter Schmitz, project lead for Mars Express Phoenix support, said in a statement, “Our MELACOM data will enable NASA to confirm the Phoenix lander's descent characteristics, including speed and acceleration through the Mars atmosphere."
The MELACOM data recorded by Mars Express will be downloaded to Earth using NASA Deep Space Terminals DSS-15 and DSS-25. The data will take 15 minutes and 20 seconds at light speed to reach the ESA’s European Space Operation’s Center. After monitoring the EDL phase of Phoenix’s decent the Mars Express spacecraft will fly over the Phoenix’s landing zone again and monitor signals transmitted from the surface.
In all, the Mars Express will monitor signals from the Phoenix 14 times over the course of a week. One of these monitoring attempts will be used to demonstrate and confirm that Mars Express can be used as a relay station to receive data from the Martian surface and relay test commands to the Phoenix lander.