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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Mars mission lasts 54 days past due date; approaching winter may cripple Lander

    After surpassing the target date of functionality by 54 days and facing a Martian winter of snow and temperatures that dip far below freezing, the UA-built Phoenix Lander soldiers on, exceeding scientists’ expectations. In the past two weeks, the spacecraft performed a successful collection of a soil sample, detected snow and weathered a sizable dust storm.

    “”We’re seeing our space craft continue to perform beautifully even though it’s got a lot of constraints on power because the daylight is diminishing and it’s also getting very cold,”” said Carla Bitter, an education and public outreach officer for the mission.

    Bitter said Phoenix receives less than 50 to 70 percent of the amount of energy than it got at the height of the mission in the summer.

    Not only are there fewer hours of sunlight, but almost every day is cloudy on Mars and winter storms are starting to occur, Bitter explained.

    “”We had our first great winter dust storm,”” said Pat Woida, a senior engineer on the mission. “”It came and we kind of hunkered down for the night. We did just fine and now we’re back in business.””

    Since the storm, Phoenix scientists celebrated a triumph in one of the mission’s chief orders of business: collecting soil samples.

    Bitter said that on Monday, Oct. 13, scientists had a successful soil sample delivered into the Lander’s Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer. TEGA is used to “”bake”” soil samples in its ovens and then “”sniff”” any gases that they might release in order to analyze the soil’s contents.

    “”(TEGA) has been a source of difficulty because it doesn’t like that clumpy Martian soil,”” Bitter said, reflecting on some previous unsuccessful deliveries. “”So to have a successful delivery is really good news for us.””

    However, despite the accomplishment, the use of the TEGA instrument and the robotic arm used to collect the samples will likely be phased out, Woida said.

    “”In the next week or so, we got to pretty much park the arm,”” he said. “”It’s like you got to cut off your arm to save your life, the way the power goes.””

    “”A bigger percentage of the power we have is needed to keep the electronics warm in their operating range of minus 60 centigrade,”” he continued.

    The science and engineering teams are working together to keep Phoenix alive. Now they must make decisions about what can be accomplished in the remaining time before the Lander’s faculties give out.

    In mid-November, scientists will lose contact with Phoenix for a few weeks when Mars’ orbit passes on the other side of the Sun, Woida said.

    “”We likely won’t hear from Phoenix again,”” he said, “”but folks are doing all they can to keep things rolling up until that last minute.””

    Woida says that the accumulation of snowfall is probably one of the last things the scientists will be able to observe.

    “”I think in the end,”” Woida added, reflecting on the mission’s discoveries and the potential for further Mars missions, “”what we’ll really find with the mission, is that we’ve identified habitable zones. That is, that Mars not only has the ice and water that we need, but its got the kind of soil chemistry that you can actually grow plants in.””

    Woida concluded with hope for the public’s understanding of Mars. “”I think what people are going to walk away from this mission with is how Earth-like Mars is, instead of it being an alien world.””

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