Did Phoenix lose a wing?

By Phil Plait | May 24, 2010 2:00 pm

The Mars Phoenix lander touched down near the Red Planet’s north pole in May of 2008. It was designed to investigate the history of water on Mars, digging into the surface soil and examining the chemistry there. It had a limited design lifetime of only a few months, since the onset of Martian winter in the north made weather conditions too severe to continue operations.

The hope was that NASA would be able to revive the lander once spring had sprung. Many such attempts have failed, and we may now know why: new images show the lander may be damaged.


The image on the left was taken in July 2008 with the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and shows the lander in blue. The image on the right was taken just a few days ago, on May 7, 2010. The illumination is similar in the two shots — note the landscapes are very similar looking — but the shadow cast by the lander looks different now. My first thought was that dust built up on the lander, making it look different, but scientists have shown this not to be the case.

More likely, carbon dioxide buildup on the solar panels bent or even broke one of the panels. There were predictions that this might happen, so while this isn’t a total surprise, it’s disappointing. This means that Phoenix will not be able to soak up enough solar energy to restart its operations, which in turn, sadly, means it really is dead.

The good news is it did a tremendous job in its mission, returning important data about the properties of the Martian surface. Although it appears the mission is now over, it was a raging success and I’m happy for the team.

It’s funny: Mars missions tend to fail catastrophically before they even get there, or they get to Mars and seem to last forever. Spirit and Opportunity have long outlasted their warranties, and we have several orbiters still going strong. And even though Phoenix made it down to the surface and exceeded its planned lifetime, it’s still a little weird to find out it’s dead. It shows me that we get used to ESA, NASA, and JPL’s superhuman efforts when it comes to their missions.

Space exploration is hard, damn hard. But we continue to do it, and we continue to get better at it. So while this specific news is disappointing, it’s also a reminder that we can’t take anything for granted. My hat’s off to the scientists and engineers who made Phoenix work, and work beyond expectations.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

MORE ABOUT: HiRISE, Mars, MRO, Phoenix

Comments (26)

  1. I’m waiting for the XKCD comic that anthropomorphizes this one before I start feeling any tinge of sorrow. Another unmitigated success for science!

  2. “It shows me that we get used to ESA, NASA, and JPL‚Äôs superhuman efforts when it comes to their missions.”

    I saw a table in a research talk recently about the launch of the rocket carrying the Planck and Hershel satellite. The table showed exact positions, velocities and angles with error bars the rocket needed to meet so that Planck and Hershel could get to their destination. What was shocking was how close to the best fit values that rocket got to. I agree: these people are super-humans.

  3. I’d like to see multiple probes and landers on or around all planets, dwarf planets and many moons in our solar system. If I had the money, I would just do it myself. Democracy can take SO long.

  4. Jon Hanford

    At last, proof of life on Mars. Some of it just nabbed a solar panel. :)

  5. Hey, back when I lived in central Los Angeles, we knew enough not to leave an unattended vehicle parked too long in the same spot.

  6. The one on the left is an Atreides Heavy Trooper. The one on the right is what is left after an attack by a Harkonnen Trike.

  7. If you look really close you can see it over behind the refrigerator.

  8. MadScientist

    That just makes it a challenge to build the next rover for a nominal operating period of a few months but try to build it to last through a winter.

    I’m looking forward to seeing the results the Japanese get from their mission to Venus. The Pluto probe is still a few years away from its expected date of arrival.

  9. Cindy

    Nah, Wallace and Gromit were there and accidentally broke it off while looking for cheese.

  10. Huron

    “The hope was that NASA would be able to revive the lander once spring had sprung.”

    I think saying “would” is false and makes it sound like NASA failed. It was always a “might” be able to come back in the Spring, and even then it was always considered one hell of a longshot and never really expected.

  11. Bored Martian teenagers vandalized it.

  12. Pi-needles

    So no rising from the ashes for this Phoenix then – looks like martian ice destroys what earthly fire couldn’t. (eg. for the legendary bird.)

    A pity yes – but as noted reviving that lander was always going to be a very long shot and Phoenix still counts as a remarkably successful mission. :-)

  13. Messier Tidy Upper

    What a shame if not exactly a surprise. :-(

    But then the Phoenix lander has been buried under the edges of the martian north polar icecap yes?

    Great mission and one that has already risen from the ashes of the lost Mars Polar lander – but I do kind of wish it had landed ju-uust that little bit further north on the permanent ice sheet of Mars itself so we could have seen the “red planet” in a “white Christmas” light. (It did after all land around December a couple of years ago didnt it?) ūüėČ

  14. Yep, definitely stolen by rogue Martians. It’s only a matter of time before we get the news that the rovers have been placed on cinderblocks. ūüėõ

  15. The Spirit and Opportunity build teams forgot to install the Sony warranty timer, obviously. Even with Spirit doing its best impersonation of the stationary Viking lander, these were remarkably durable little bots.

    The Lander is dead, Long live the Lander!

  16. Ray

    I think NASA needs to do a better job of picking landing locations. Clearly, Phoenix landed in a bad neighborhood and the locals have stripped it down to the frame. All that’s left of Phoenix is sitting on concrete blocks.

  17. James H.

    It looks partially buried. Could it have sunk somewhat? How heavy is it?

  18. Ray

    Cripes, just noticed that I was not the first with the “bad martians” theory. Sorry about that. In the future I will try not to plagiarize my humorous musings.

  19. drow

    “Dear Earth, thanks for the solar panels. But please send gasoline on the next one, we’re trying to induce global warming over here. Thanks!”

  20. I think the Martian Mole that made that burrow on the right got it.

  21. shawmutt

    It’s pretty obvious, and I’m surprised it hasn’t been said yet. Future space travelers have traveled back in time and disabled the lander to prevent the return of Martian microbes that decimated the human race.

  22. “carbon dioxide buildup on the solar panels bent or even broke one of the panels.”

    Wow so even with Mars’s reduced gravity I guess the CO2 builds up like frost?

  23. kid cool

    maybe it was obstructing someone’s view of Venus …

  24. XPT

    It sure does at certain latitudes. I don’t think gravity plays a key role as much as temperature and atmospheric pressure.


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