The plucky rovers Spirit and Opportunity and the ice-finding Phoenix Lander have perhaps drawn more attention, but it’s the craft that’s been in steady, silent orbiter that has them all beat for longevity. The Mars Odyssey mission just clicked off its 3,340th day in orbit of Mars yesterday, making it the longest-running human mission to the Red Planet. The Mars Global Surveyor, another orbiter, held the record previously.
The Mars Phoenix Lander conked out in November, ending the active mission of the robotic scientist, but the results of its five months of research on Martian geology are still coming in. In a late-breaking update, some Phoenix scientists now declare that they spotted several drops of liquid salt water on the lander’s legs; this would be the first time liquid water has been detected and photographed beyond Earth.
The researcher who proposed the hypothesis, Nilton Renno, was careful to say, “This is not a proof.” But he added: “I think the evidence is overwhelming. It’s not circumstantial evidence” [The New York Times]. Liquid water would boost the possibility that microbial life could survive beneath the Martian surface.
Renno bases his claim on images that show several blobs on the lander’s legs that changed between snapshots, seeming to merge and grow in size. The dramatic assertion has divided the Phoenix’s science team, with some researchers arguing that the low-resolution pictures actually show nothing more than clumps of frost. “It’s highly unlikely that [liquid water is] the explanation,” said Michael Hecht of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory…. “It’s just water vapor moving around. It’s an ordinary, unexciting explanation” [AP].
Hope you’re not bored of stories about water ice on Mars: Now that scientists have found it, they can’t seem to stop finding it. Just a few months after the dear, departed Mars Phoenix Lander made history by touching and analyzing water ice beneath the soil near the Martian north pole, researchers using NASA‘s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have discovered massive glaciers near the equator. The glaciers, buried under rocky debris, are said to be more than three times the size of Los Angeles, up to half a mile thick and skirt the edges of mountains and cliffs [Telegraph].
The glaciers’ presence means that rovers on future scientific missions won’t have to land at the freezing cold poles to study the planet’s ice. The glaciers could even prove helpful as a source of drinkable water to future astronauts exploring Mars. “This says there may be samples of ice within our reach,” [researcher Jim] Head said. “If we’re thinking ahead to human exploration of Mars, it means we could go to some of these places and actually have water ice there” [Wired News]. Astronauts could also make hydrogen fuel from the ice, researchers say.
Just after NASA made the sad announcement that the Mars Phoenix Lander had run out of power and ceased communicating, word comes of power problems with the Mars rover Spirit, which has been blithely rolling over the Martian terrain for almost five years.
NASA revealed yesterday that dust storms last week left Spirit’s solar panels coated with dust and caused power levels to drop to an all-time low, and that the rover then shut down operations and went dormant. Spirit’s scientists are now hoping for a message signaling that the rover survived the storm and has recovered power.
Spirit may emerge unscathed. “We are cautiously optimistic that we can get through this dust storm without a catastrophe,” says rover project scientist Bruce Banerdt…. That’s because spring is dawning in the southern hemisphere, where Spirit is located, and the extra sunlight means the rover needs less energy to run its heaters. Had the storm occurred six months ago, during the local winter solstice, the craft would have less chance of survival, says Banerdt [New Scientist].
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.
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].
Chalk another discovery up to the Mars Phoenix Lander. Several months after finding water ice beneath the Martian soil, the NASA robot has now turned its gaze upward to the sky, and has observed a light snowfall over the polar region. Scientists said the discovery of snow on Mars was made by an instrument that shined a laser into clouds about two miles above the ground, revealing the presence of ice crystals. “Nothing like this has ever been seen on Mars,” said [scientist] Jim Whiteway [Los Angeles Times].
The ice crystals quickly vaporized as they fell through the atmosphere of Mars, but researchers say they’ll be watching during the next two months to see if the snow ever reaches the ground. Over the past few months, as the Martian winter has moved in, Phoenix has also observed frost, ground fog, and clouds of ice crystals.
Just as summer is giving way to autumn in the Earth’s northern hemisphere, the seasons are changing on Mars, too. Near the Martian north pole, the Mars Phoenix Lander is watching its environment grow darker and colder, bringing Phoenix a little closer the end of its mission each day. Meanwhile, in Mars’ southern hemisphere, the rovers Spirit and Opportunity have been reinvigorated with increased sunlight to power their solar panels, and are on the move once more.
Phoenix, which has conducted fascinating experiments on the planet’s soil and water ice, saw the sun dip below the horizon yesterday for the first time since it landed on May 25. NASA officials originally planned a 90-day mission for Phoenix, which would have ended operations this week, but since the lander is in excellent condition NASA extended its mission. “It’s doing fabulously,” said Barry Goldstein, NASA’s Phoenix project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “But I’ve made it clear to the science team that the warranty’s over…. The vehicle is not going to tip over and die,” Goldstein said. “But we’re getting to the point where we’re going to start seeing the creaks and groans” [SPACE.com].
The deep furrows carved in the sides of Martian craters were most likely formed by snowmelt in the planet’s recent geological past, according to a new study. The findings indicate that seasonal flows of liquid water may have streamed down the craters’ flanks when Mars was a wetter planet, as recently as a few hundred thousand years ago. Today, the Red Planet is a colder and drier place; although the Mars Phoenix Lander found water ice buried under the dirt near the north pole, no liquid water currently exists on the planet, and any ice exposed to air quickly turns into vapor due to the low atmospheric pressure.
The gullies were first sighted several years ago, but researchers couldn’t immediately determine what had caused them. [S]ome scientists proposed that the features were formed either by dry avalanches or by groundwater pushing up from below the surface and running down the sides of craters [SPACE.com]. But in a new study of crater images taken by the Mars orbiters, researchers found evidence that ice and melting snow were the culprits.
Exploring Mars looks like so much fun, everyone want to get in on the act. Following the path blazed by the NASA rovers Spirit and Opportunity and the NASA lander Phoenix, which are all currently active on the Red Planet, the European Space Agency (ESA) has designed a rover that is expected to take off for Mars in 2013 and land on the surface in 2015. The ESA’s ExoMars mission is designed to examine the planet’s geology and to search for signs of past life.
ESA officials boast that the two prototypes, nicknamed Brandon and Bruno, are more maneuverable and more independent than previous robots that have made the journey to Mars, and say that these advantages will allow their rover to see more of the planet. Says engineer Chris Draper: “Obviously, the American MER rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) that were put up by Nasa enjoyed an extreme amount of success. They were able to travel large distances, well beyond their planned lifetimes. But we’re hoping that with our baby, we’ll be able to go places that are actually much further” [BBC News].