After five months of scraping and digging into the soil at a lonely spot near the Martian north pole, NASA’s Mars Phoenix Lander has finally succumbed to the cold, dark Martian winter. NASA scientists announced yesterday that they hadn’t received a communication from the lander since November 2, and pronounced the death of Phoenix.
While the mission was expected to end this way, with the lander’s solar panels unable to get enough light from the fading sun and temperatures dropping rapidly, Phoenix’s legions of fans couldn’t help but mourn the demise of the robot explorer. NASA official Doug McCuistion counseled people to view Phoenix’s end as “an Irish wake rather than a funeral. It’s certainly been a grand adventure,” McCuistion said [AP].
The beginning of the end for Phoenix came on Oct. 27, just after Phoenix finished its last major experiment analyzing Martian soil, [when] an unexpected dust storm hit. The batteries, already low from running the experiment, ran out of energy. The spacecraft first put itself into a low-energy “safe mode,” then fell silent. It revived itself on Oct. 30, but, with the dust still swirling, was never able to fully recharge its batteries. Each day, the solar panels would generate enough electricity for the spacecraft to wake up, but then the batteries drained again [The New York Times]. NASA will continue to listen for a signal for a few more weeks, but no further communications are expected.
NASA scientists say they’re not too downcast by the end of the mission; they’re focusing on what Phoenix accomplished. The lander will be remembered most for being the first to spot water ice in a trench dug in the Martian soil, and the first to “taste” that ice in its sample ovens. Phoenix also found clays in the soil that must have formed in the presence of liquid water, which indicate that Mars could have been more hospitable to life in its warmer past. However, the mission did experience a few glitches, most notably with the tiny test ovens designed to sniff for traces of organic, or carbon-based compounds. Several oven doors failed to open all the way; the lander also had trouble getting the dirt into the ovens and a short circuit threatened to render the instrument useless [AP].
Temperatures at the Martian north pole will soon plummet to below -250 degrees Fahrenheit, and carbon dioxide ice is expected to encase Phoenix, destroying its electronics. However, if Phoenix somehow survives the cruel winter, it’s programmed with a “Lazarus mode” that could also allow the lander to rise from hibernation in the Martian spring—October 2009 here on Earth. “There is a possibility that it could try to come alive and contact us again. The chances are probably low,” NASA’s McCuistion said. Many of the instruments aboard Phoenix have been used up, but “it might be interesting” to employ the craft a while longer as a Mars weather station, McCuistion said [National Geographic News].
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Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona