What is Phoenix? It’s a Mars Mission Question on Jeopardy!

by Ian O'Neill on March 31, 2008

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Phoenix makes an appearence on the US TV quizshow Jeopardy! (credit: Jeopardy! Productions, Inc.)
The answer was: “A NASA Mars lander has this mythic name because it was made of parts from a scrapped 2001 mission,” and the correct question was “What is Phoenix?“. The Mars mission currently en-route to Mars hasn’t only set the science world alight, it appears to be growing into the public mindset. Appearing as the subject for one of the questions on the highly popular US gameshow Jeopardy! before it has even arrived at Mars, I wonder how popular it will become when the mission actually begins…


It seems that even gameshows consider the next Mars mission to be significant enough for their contestants to answer.

Getting space science missions into the public domain is never an easy task – there needs to be a certain balance between how much science and information is released to make the mission accessible to non-specialists. Personal experience of this includes giving my first public outreach lecture on physics and astronomy in the Arctic where I chatted all about the “cool” physics we were doing up there (including plasma physics, particle dynamics and some magnetohydrodynamic interactions in the magnetosphere thrown in for good measure… eh?). I later found out that I hadn’t connected with my audience at all (surprise), just because I found it exciting didn’t mean everyone else would. In future presentations I focused on what you could see up there (I mean, a huge picture of the aurora was a good starting point) and the fact we had to travel to the frozen observatories with rifles (not to hijack the telescope, but to protect us from polar bears) engaged my audience far more effectively. The science could then be related much better, giving it a meaning and an importance.

So this brings me to NASA’s Phoenix Mars mission. Not only does the mission have one of the best research/mission websites out there (hosted not by NASA but by the University of Arizona, Phoenix), I’ve noticed with each news release there is a genuine and informed effort to get people excited about this superb mission. And people not familiar with planetary missions are taking note.

One indicator is that the long-running US TV show Jeopardy! featured a question on the Phoenix mission due to arrive at Mars on May 25th. The clue was “A NASA Mars lander has this mythic name because it was made of parts from a scrapped 2001 mission,” and the answer was “What is Phoenix?” (note: for those outside the US or those not familiar with the show, the “answer” is stated and the “question” to that “answer” must be guessed by the contestants).

It’s not clear from the Phoenix news release whether it was answered correctly or not, but what is significant is that it was chosen as a question on a non-specialized TV show (a prime-time show at that) in the first place. Obviously the Phoenix mission public outreach guys are doing a great job, beginning to make the Phoenix Mars Mission a household name…

Roll on May 25th!

Credit: Phoenix Mars Mission

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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

Rue March 31, 2008 at 6:26 PM

“It’s not clear from the Phoenix news release whether it was answered correctly or not”

You mean questioned correctly…

Davin March 31, 2008 at 6:35 PM

Phoenix is also the subject of a new musical tribute I just finished up:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yGSjZVNibqU

Enjoy!

Davin

Timber March 31, 2008 at 8:16 PM

Thanks Davin, well done

Basil March 31, 2008 at 9:29 PM

I was there! I watched Jeopardy the night that question aired…and got it right!
My dad never misses Jeopardy and he always ‘bets it all’ on Final Jeopardy. It’s tradition: as soon as Alex reports the subject for Final Jeopardy, you must say “I bet it all!”, confidently portraying to the world that you, surely, know anything and everything about the subject he has just revealed. Upon failing to get the right response 30 seconds later, you must shrug and say “Oh well, maybe tomorrow” or “That’s what I meant”.

Ryan March 31, 2008 at 10:01 PM

Very nice davin.

Was anyone else reminded of the imperial probe droid from empire strikes back?

Rui Borges April 1, 2008 at 4:22 AM

The of Phoenix being a mission with such passion and the will to pass that same passion to the general public has, undoubtfuly, to credited to Peter Smith, Phoenix PI, a true heart and soul explorer, if others were like him we would have humans watching Jeopardy! on Mars already… ;-)

Pedro April 4, 2008 at 3:39 AM

Hello.

It’s not substancial but… being correctly answered is really the issue, Rue.

That brings it to my question:
What is the origin of the name of the misson?

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