The 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].
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