In the Dark and the Cold, the Mars Phoenix Lander Begins to Shut Down

By Eliza Strickland | October 29, 2008 8:42 am

Mars Phoenix Lander armThe cold, dark winter is fast descending on Mars, and now it’s time for NASA’s Mars Phoenix Lander, which has conducted five months of (literally) groundbreaking research near the Martian north pole, to begin slowly shutting down. Phoenix’s Earth-bound managers announced yesterday that the lander’s solar panels are generating less power from the decreasing sunlight, while at the same time the craft’s heaters require more energy to keep the lander operational as temperatures drop.

NASA‘s engineers were prepared for this inevitability, and say they’ll now begin to shut down some of its systems to save power for the lander’s main camera and meteorological instruments. “If we did nothing, it wouldn’t be long before the power needed to operate the spacecraft would exceed the amount of power it generates on a daily basis,” said Phoenix Project Manager Barry Goldstein…. “By turning off some heaters and instruments, we can extend the life of the lander by several weeks and still conduct some science” [The Tech Herald].

The robotic arm that dug into the Martian landscape and scraped up the first water ice ever observed on the planet has been “parked” on a patch of soil, and no further soil samples will be taken; the heater that warms the arm was the first to be shut down yesterday. Some of the Phoenix scientists sounded sad to see the arm cease functioning: “We turn off this workhorse with the knowledge that it has far exceeded expectations and conducted every operation asked of it,” said Ray Arvidson, the robotic arm’s co-investigator [The Tech Herald].

Over the coming weeks, three more heaters will be shut down one at a time to save power. After the last heater that powers the main camera and meteorological instruments is shut off, NASA says those devices should still continue to operate for a little while, warmed somewhat by the heat from their own electronics. Even after those devices finally fail, some science can continue until the bitter end. The Phoenix team has left a thermal and electrical-conductivity probe thrust into the soil to measure temperature, humidity and conductivity. The probe does not need a heater and should continue to send back data for weeks [Reuters].

Related Content:
80beats: It’s Snowing on Mars!
80beats: As the Martian Seasons Change, NASA’s Robots Press On
80beats: Mars Phoenix Lander Gets Its First Taste of Martian Ice
80beats: It’s Official: There Is Ice on Mars

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
  • Eric

    What an amazing accomplishment for man (a few in particular)! It’s comforting to know that the human species still has some hope…

  • Brandan

    There is hope for our species. But survival requires we wake from the dream we are currently living in. We will never achieve any of these kind accomplishments together until the large majority of us acknowledge we are all the same species and need to redefine the way we relate to each other. Perhaps there should be a push for private donations. NASA needs to work much harder and get more creative in solving their funding problems.

  • Gordon

    It is a shame to see such wonderful piece of equipment being shut down and tossed aside especially since it still works. I hope that come spring, they can boot that bad boy up and make it work again.

    AFAIK, Spirit and Opportunity are still working.

  • Ron

    It will get a lot colder there then where Spirit and Opportunity are.
    They expect the lander to be totally submerged in ice during the winter. Covered solid.
    It will be something to see it survive through that.


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