Prof Heads to Arizona to Monitor Mars Experiment
Space Scientist Hoffman is Part of Team Behind Exploratory Lander's Mission
May 23, 2008
Space scientist Dr. John H. Hoffman will join a team of researchers in Tucson, Ariz., on Sunday to watch the Phoenix Mars Lander touch down on the northern plains of the Red Planet after a 9-month-long journey from Earth.
Dr. John H. Hoffman
A physics professor and member of UT Dallas’ William B. Hanson Center for Space Sciences, Hoffman is part of a group led by Dr. Peter Smith of the University of Arizona in Tucson who were selected in 2003 by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to charter an unmanned mission to Mars.
When it lands May 25, a 7-foot-long robotic arm on the solar-powered lander will dig a trench in the Martian surface to look for ice and other water-related substances. The materials will be collected and analyzed in a series of small furnaces, and the effluents from the furnaces will be analyzed by a mass spectrometer system designed by Hoffman. The system will determine the presence of water and the mineralogical composition of soil samples.
In addition to performing sub-surface mineral studies, the UT Dallas spectrometer will analyze the atmosphere of Mars. If the planet had water in the distant past — as channels on the planet’s surface indicate — the climate was probably very different from that of today.
“Man is a natural explorer — we’re curious beings — and I’m excited to be in Arizona as the lander touches down and our exploration of Mars moves forward,” Hoffman said. “Having worked on lunar expeditions, a Venus mission and the investigation of a comet, I feel like this experience will bring my studies full circle.”
According to NASA, Phoenix will enter the top of the Martian atmosphere at almost 13,000 miles per hour. In seven minutes, the spacecraft must complete a challenging sequence of events to slow to about five mph before its three legs reach the ground. The lander will have to navigate a tricky, unknown terrain, but the area selected for the landing is one of the planet’s least rocky surfaces.
The mission is expected to last about three months.
Hoffman, who received about $4 million in funding from NASA to build the system, has worked at UT Dallas and its predecessor research institution since 1966. He has designed and built scientific instruments that have flown on numerous exploration missions — both manned and unmanned — into space and to other planetary bodies and objects, including the moon, Venus and Halley’s Comet.