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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


NASA’s Mars Lander operation over

If 18 months of radio silence is any indication, NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander will not be rising from the ashes anytime soon.

After a cold winter spent on the arctic planes of Mars’ northern hemisphere, the UA-sponsored spacecraft officially ended operations on May 24.

A new image, transmitted by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, or MRO, suggests that frost damage incurred by a solar panel was the likely cause of Phoenix’s demise.

The craft was designed to dig for ice under the Martian surface and to investigate the potential of the Martian arctic to support life.

According to UA planetary scientist Peter Smith, Phoenix’s principal investigator, the lander discovered a compound called perchlorate that could potentially be an energy source for microbes.

Despite strong suspicions that the Phoenix Lander would not survive the winter, NASA launched a series of listening campaigns this year in an attempt to contact Phoenix.

The Phoenix Lander was last heard from on Nov. 2, 2008, just before the solar-powered craft was shrouded in darkness for the winter.

Although no longer functioning, the spacecraft managed to outlive its expected three-month lifespan by a full two months before shutting down, and the mission is widely regarded as a success.

“”We can always do better, but the Phoenix mission met its goals and I am satisfied that it will be viewed as a pivotal mission in the understanding of the Mars environment by historians,”” Smith said.

The latest attempt to establish communication with Phoenix came in mid-May when NASA’s Mars Odyssey Orbiter conducted 61 flyovers of the landing site and detected only silence.

This was the last of four listening campaigns conducted since January, and coupled with a new image captured by the UA-helmed High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, camera aboard the MRO, it provided ample confirmation of Phoenix’s death.

Scientists were able to deduce from the HiRISE image that one of Phoenix’s solar panels had collapsed during the winter by comparing the lander’s shadow in a current image with an image taken during similar lighting conditions shortly after the craft landed on May 25, 2008.

“”We saw that the lander looked kind of funny. Even if it’s covered in dust and painted differently, the shadows should be the same,”” said Alfred McEwen, a UA planetary scientist and the principal investigator of the HiRISE camera project.

The Phoenix Mars Lander was not designed or expected to survive a Martian winter. A heavy layer of carbon dioxide frost that envelops a large part of Mars’ northern hemisphere each winter likely overburdened the solar panel, causing its collapse.

“”The solar panels were fairly flimsy; they were designed to stand up to Mars gravity, and in the wintertime there it’s like a layer of dry ice,”” McEwen said. “”It gets cold enough for the carbon dioxide to actually condense out of the atmosphere, just like (water) frost on Earth.””

Although the Phoenix Lander is now out of commission, the data that the craft collected during its five months of operation will continue to occupy scientists for years to come.          

“”The data returned from Phoenix is creating ripples throughout the community that is leading to a new understanding of life on Mars,”” Smith said.

“”I suspect that Curiosity (a new NASA Mars rover set to launch in late 2011) will find that organic molecules are available on Mars to fuel undiscovered life forms.””

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