HiRISE spots Phoenix once again

By Phil Plait | November 4, 2009 2:00 pm

Speaking of HiRISE and Mars…

The Phoenix Mars Lander is sitting at the Martian north pole, its mission complete. Designed to study the history of water on Mars and investigate potential human habitability, it touched down in May 2008. It dug trenches and examined the surface soil of Mars for months, but the Martian winter was inexorable. Eventually, the intense cold forced engineers to shut Phoenix down (as planned), and there it still sits.

The HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took images of Phoenix last year while its mission was still active, in June 2008. Here’s that image:


Phoenix is pretty obvious! The surface there was relatively free of frost at that time. But scientists on Earth decided to get more images, this time during the winter. In July of this year they found Phoenix once again, but the picture is a little different!


First off, the green is not real; this is a false color image. So don’t go thinking they found moss bogs or anything like that. What you’re seeing is the same field as in the first picture, but this time its covered with carbon dioxide frost! Even Phoenix appears to have CO2 over it, making it pretty difficult to see. I imagine that if they hadn’t taken the earlier picture, it would’ve been a lot harder to pick the lander out from the background.

Spring sprung on the northern hemisphere of Mars a couple of weeks ago, and in another few months scientists will try to contact Phoenix and see if they can wake it up after its lengthy hibernation. It’s a bit of a long shot — the mission wasn’t designed for it — but one thing we’ve learned about the probes we’ve sent to Mars is that they can be incredibly hardy: the two rovers are still operating years after the initial design lifetime. So maybe Phoenix will live again, and get back to work (expect other news sources to say it will rise from its ashes; a bad metaphor given that it’s covered in frost). And if it does, images like the ones above from HiRISE will help us back here on Earth interpret what it’s seeing. The more eyes we have on Mars, the better.

MORE ABOUT: HiRISE, Mars, Phoenix

Comments (25)

  1. Mike

    In that false colour image, what -does- the green represent?


    At the penultimate paragraph, in the second and third line:

    What you’re seeing is the same field as in the first picture, but this time its covered with carbon dioxide frost!

    That should be it’s, not “its”.

  3. Neato!
    I hope it lives, these things do really seem to be a little more hardy than the original mission plans (unless of course you make a unit conversion error or something like that).

  4. Lukas

    Hi Phil,

    (Sorry to be off topic..)

    Did you know anything about Qian Xuesen?
    He died on October 31st (age 97) and was one of the co-founders of the JPL. He later became the “father of Chinese rocketry.

    More here:

  5. Douglas Troy

    Just waiting for Fox News to Report “Moss Found On Mars!” … any second now …


  6. Crux Australis

    Reminds me of those little critters they found on Mars in that movie; not Mission to Mars, but the other one, the one with those little critters. Excuse me while I have another coffee.

  7. MadScientist

    It is very fortunate that other missions have worked so well and the rovers did their jobs and lasted well beyond the design life. With the number of lost missions it’s good to have some run very well. (Except of course the mission objectives all vary somewhat so you can’t really compensate for the lost ones using the successful ones.)

  8. I would LOVE it if the Phoenix would ‘come back to life’.

    Okay, I’m prejudiced, since the Mission Control Center is here in Tucson…..


  9. «bønez_brigade»

    The raw images must be very #FFFFFF.

  10. N8R

    I thought all the green was the little martian men studying the primitive alien vessel that appeared on their planet.

  11. Charles

    Mars is great. That’s why I think we should send manned missions and eventually colonize Mars.

  12. Petrolonfire

    Yay! They’ve found moss bogs on Mars! 😉

    Awesome images!

    (I couldn’t keep #5-Douglas Troy waiting now could I?) 😉

  13. Flying sardines

    Brilliant! Not just the Apollo LEM descent stages but now Phoenix too – I love seeing human craft on other planets. 😀

    There’s something about this that I just find astoundingly neat! 8)

    Well done to HiRise & MRO team – congratulations & thanks from me! Thanks also to the BA for sharing this & letting us all know ’bout it. Love this blog! :-)

    @ 11. Charles Says:

    Mars is great. That’s why I think we should send manned missions and eventually colonize Mars.

    I second that. I think most people actually favour this too – wish it got the funding to go ahead. Any congresscritters here – FUND it! Please!

    @ 9. «bønez_brigade» Says:

    The raw images must be very #FFFFFF.

    F-FF-Reeee-Zzzz-ing? 😉

  14. Messier TidyUpper

    @ 8. John Paradox Says:

    I would LOVE it if the Phoenix would ‘come back to life’.

    Me too. Wouldn’t that just be so apt – a Phoenix coming back to life indeed! After all, that’s what legend says it should do! :-)

    Best wishes to them & add my congrats to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter folks too. :-)

  15. gss_000

    Let’s hope the MRO is back operating again by then. It’s been in safe mode for a couple of weeks now.

  16. markogts

    Winter in July? You closed-minded science believers: EVERYBODY knows that winter is in december! :-)

  17. Of course, Phoenix was so named in the first place, because it was built from leftover parts from an earlier failed mission!

  18. philippec


    Isn’t the journey from earth to mars colder for a longer period of time? Why could the lander survive these conditions, but not 6 month of rather warmer conditions on the surface?

    Is it because it had some form of warming device during the travel to keep it from freezing, and now it does not have any power source to keep it warm?

  19. So… Has anyone figured out where those failed missions might have crashed? What are the odds of seeing those sites imaged?

  20. Nigel Depledge

    @ 18 –

    No, it is because in space, nothing can crystallise onto your solar panels.

    In a vacuum, the only way to absorb or lose heat is by radiation. Certainly while near Earth, the heat from the sun can be a bit of a problem (which is why the Apollo capsules did a very slow roll as they travelled to the moon, to ensure that the heat influx from the sun was even over the whole surface). I don’t know what temperature was maintained by Phoenix while travelling to Mars, but it may well have been doing something similar.

    In an atmosphere, however, heat can be transferred by conduction and convection very much more rapidly than by radiation. Also, the atmosphere has stuff that can crystallise out onto parts of the spacecraft. At Mars’s poles, this will be CO2 frost. I have no idea if this will get heavy enough to damage the lander, but it can certainly prevent the solar panels from absorbing sunlight. Also, batteries exposed to extreme cold (it may be as low as -100 °C on the coldest nights) might not ever work again.

  21. StevoR

    This reminds me so much of this 950-word (approx.) short story which I wrote decades ago (yikes! Time shock. :-O ) that I thought I’d share it with y’all if that’s okay? (Hope ’tis, my apologies if not.)

    I wrote this (very) short story after the Pathfinder landing but looking at this now it seems it maybe even more fitting for the Phoenix mission. I hope y’all enjoy it – it was published in the Advertiser (Adelaide, South Oz) newspaper back in summer (ie. Dec.-Jan-ish) 1997 when I was a lot younger. I hope I’ve gotten better as a writer since – & fear I might’ve gone backwards!


    Gentle Into the Orange Night :
    By Steven C. Raine (a.k.a. StevoR here)

    ‘Do not go gentle into the good night
    Rage, rage, rage against the dying of the light’

    – Dylan Thomas

    1) Landing – Friday July 4, 1996 Anno Domini :

    It comes from a wandering star, invading the salmon hued atmosphere like an unusually large meteor. It shoots across the sky, a trail like a spider’s silky rope bursts from it. This trail expands, becomes a parachute, catching the falling star while it still glows red hot. Unlike the usual specks of celestial dust, it’s descent is controlled by a tiny silicon chip brain, programmed five hundred million kilometres away.

    It plummets, ever falling, like Milton’s Lucifer on his plunge to Hell. Then it is cloven in twain by those same far distant master’s silicon tabled decrees. The red hot casing that had carried it through the hottest part of the descent, plunges towards a fiery impact. The other section, an upturned bowl with parachutes attached, faces a gentler landing. Yet the invading objects transformations continue as it lowers, on a strong kevlar rope, a furled up construction, suspended like an spider on its silk thread. The probe sends an echoing RADAR shout to find its height above the local base level of this sea-less world of rusty frigid dust.

    Ten seconds from the hard rocks of Ares Vallis, the airbags inflate, the crinkled suspended mass becoming a spherically buffered hedgehog cocooning its sensitive core. Four seconds later, retrorockets fire breaking its perilous fall. The cable severs, the bundle of oversized balloons dropping from the abandoned top section. They didn’t have far to fall, perhaps the height of a giant sequoia tree. The interplanetary voyager slams into the surface, bounces, rebounds, begins a violent trampoline ride, leaping repeatedly, each bounce lower until the astronomical journey rolls to a halt. The airbags gradually deflate, unveiling their precious cargo. The pyramidal structure unfolds like a flower. Large symmetrical petals open, the triumphant stamen-like spike of the radio mast prods up. The fallen craft forms a platform coloured photovoltaic black.

    2) Endurance – July, 2, 1996 Anno Domini :

    It remains, enshrouded by the sand that buried it, scarring and scratching before being blown away in an ageless cycle lacking all purpose. Since landing, many planet-encompassing sandstorms have flittered their way over the stationary craft. Sand dunes swallowed it then were shifted on. Amid the endless landscape, it endures, non functional, yet somehow admirable in its hardy refusal to be worn to sand.

    The radio mast still stands, cracked, scarred, missing its uppermost tip, yet defiant. The solar cells have been dead for all but the shortest span of the millennia, but their matte black finish is dirtied not destroyed. The punctured, shredded plastic remains flapping in the thin chill carbon dioxide air. A golden ramp too edges out, unrolled like a red carpet for some vain dignitary.

    No feet have strode upon it, merely the robotic tread of a tiny car whose wheel-tracks have long since vanished. That flat microwave-sized box-like remote venturer is still existent, if ravaged. Its treads are cracked and knocked akimbo, the axles snapped, and some of the gold wheels fallen from their places like massacred soldiers, cut from their parade lines. It sits apart, scarcely in sight of its carrier, forever marooned by flat batteries, it’s communications severed and never renewed.

    Silence continues, as darkness falls. As they have always done the pale blue dot of the morning and evening star and its dim grey companion rise and set. As the roseate sky darkens, the stars trail along their paths. Eternal in their slow sweep across the heavens, yet on a larger scale evanescent, their courses wobbling over centuries so even the pole star switches identity in an unvarying, glacially paced routine. Below this panorama, the mindless wreckage waits for its organic masters to join it across the void. There comes forth .. nothing but eternity.

    3) Discovery – 3,000,000,000,000 Anno Domini

    The end of the Solar system’s existence nears for the yellow star is creeping brighter, redder and fractionally larger. Where once it lay upon an open russet plain, now it is fossilised in orange sandstone. Though warped and twisted it is still identifiable, despite the aeons, as a thing alien to this world. It’s form has been twisted by geologic forces, compacted, lithified and tilted under straining strata. It has spent several hundred thousand years covered by vast dune-fields, buried completely, frozen into rock. Then more tens of thousands of years deeply clutched, re-oriented within the groaning restless ground. Yet more thousands of years have passed since vaster storms, spawned by increased activity from an aged and slowly dying star, eroding the overburden to create the cliff wherein it is set, like a fly in amber.

    Now it is minus mast and rover, a platform strangely bent and marked. An anomaly, detectable only by technology far superior to its original creators, sensors so refined that only the distant future could even have dreamt of them. Their light and gentle beams now unveil its scant remains.

    Feet crunch towards it, surface dust is brushed away. Wonderingly they touch the artefact, struggle to make out faded marks that once were letters. There is no doubt as to what they have discovered. Awe sweeps faces protected from the fiery glare as they caress their precious find.

    Their eyes turn upwards towards the evening star, a brilliant orange firestone against a rosy sky, the slowly broiling world third planet out from the alien Sun. In their gaze a mixture of joy, numinous realisation and sorrow. For they knew the engineers of this wondrous relic had come far along the path to the stars yet gone no further. And vision is misted over by purple tears.

    The End. (Of this story anyhow – or a beginning perhaps?)


    I suppose I could do a updated ‘Phoenix’ version if folks’d like! But not right now. 😉

  22. mfumbesi

    I sens a cover up. To me that looks like someone’s weed plantation.

  23. «bønez_brigade»

    @Flying sardines,
    Aye, that too!
    And to stretch it out even further: it looks like it’s #ffffffreezing there.

  24. Spectroscope

    @15. gss_000 Says:

    Let’s hope the MRO is back operating again by then. It’s been in safe mode for a couple of weeks now.

    Maybe check out their website :


    & the Mars Recconnaissance Orbiter’s Wikipedia page is pretty respectable too :


  25. Spectroscope

    I’ve checked there just now myself & also via the JPL MRO site :


    I can’t see anything there about it having stopped so I presume the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is still running. Certainly heard nothing to the contrary that I can recall.


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