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While most spacecraft are designed and built from scratch for one particular mission, the Phoenix Lander was pieced together from previous missions and rose from the ashes...all the way to Mars.

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[♪ INTRO] Spacecraft take a long time and lots of money to make.

Most of them are designed and built from scratch, with every single component created just for one mission… but not the Phoenix Mars Lander. This probe was pieced together from several missions that came before it and subsequently rose from their ashes all the way to Mars.

Dr. Frankenstein made his monster. But if he’d focused his efforts on space, he might have come up with something more like the Phoenix Lander.

On Mars, the Phoenix Lander collected some pretty cool data. And we already have a video all about its search for Martian water. But that search started years before.

Phoenix succeeded the canceled 2001 Mars Surveyor Lander, which never got its day in the Martian Sun because its partner, the 1999 Mars Polar Lander, was lost upon arrival on Mars. Since Surveyor was designed to communicate with Earth through the Polar Lander, it pretty much had to be scrapped. So Phoenix rose from the ashes to take over Surveyor’s science goals, including searching for water.

But first, it had to do what the Polar Lander hadn’t, and safely reach the Martian surface. This was a lander, not a rover. Its job was to land safely, and then collect all of its data in one spot.

To accomplish that goal, it needed to know where space ended and Mars began. That’s helpful to, you know, not crash. And to get an idea of where it was on its flight in relation to Mars, the Phoenix Lander used a radar system.

But not just any old radar system. The Phoenix radar system was originally designed to be an altimeter for fighter jets. Altimeters tell pilots how high they are in the air.

A radar altimeter accomplishes that goal by emitting microwaves and monitoring when they bounce back. The longer it takes for those microwaves to return, the farther you are from the ground. In theory, the same principle works perfectly well on Mars.

But the system still needed to be adapted for Phoenix to measure altitude and velocity during its descent. One of those adaptations included not getting distracted by the heat shield jettison. Fighter jets don’t have heat shields, so it wasn’t originally designed for those conditions.

During testing, engineers raised concerns that the sudden jerk as the heat shield disconnected would confuse the system. The Phoenix team had to change the timing of when the radar sent its microwaves to account for the jettison. That way, it didn’t accidentally detect Phoenix yeeting its heat shield during flight as if it were Martian ground.

Because it was repurposed, this radar system required more testing than all previous Mars radar systems from NASA combined. So in the end, it did its job well and Phoenix successfully landed on Mars. Once it landed, the probe’s secondhand science mission could begin.

To accomplish its goal of digging into Martian dirt for signs of water, Phoenix needed a robotic arm. But once again, the electric motors on that arm weren’t new to the mission. Those motors were bulk ordered for previous missions Spirit and Opportunity, so there were still a bunch left over that had gone unused.

And not all of them still worked. Now, the ones that went to space in Spirit and Opportunity surpassed performance expectations in real Mars conditions. The question was whether a few malfunctioning motors in the leftover pile meant there were issues with the rest of them.

So the Phoenix team took a thorough look at the leftover motors, eventually giving them the thumbs up. They even added extra sensors that would alert them if anything fell apart during transportation from the construction site in Colorado to the launch site in Florida, both in the USA. And just like the refurbished radar, Phoenix’s arm motors worked like a charm.

After all that testing and adapting, the Phoenix Lander touched down on Mars’s surface on May 25, 2008. It successfully sent back data with evidence for water ice hiding in the soil on Mars, with signs of calcium carbonate, a chemical marker indicating the presence of liquid water. Not bad for a probe that brought “reduce, reuse, recycle” to space.

In fact, the turn of the millennium saw a good amount of Martian traffic, all created by NASA in an attempt to do planetary science on a budget. So that’s how a ghost mission in the form of Surveyor, some spare parts from Spirit and Opportunity, and even hardware meant for fighter jets all flew to Mars together, and did some great science too. This year, the theme for the SciShow Space Pin of the Month is exploring our solar system.

And this time, it’s being explored by this charming Frankenstein’s monster of a lander. You can pre-order this pin of the Phoenix lander all month at At the end of the month we’ll close pre-orders and start manufacturing and shipping.

We’ll only make as many pins as we get orders for, and once it’s gone, it’s gone forever! But there’ll be a new great pin next month, so keep your eyes peeled. [♪ OUTRO]