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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Era ends: Mars Lander signs off

    The UA Phoenix Mars Lander discontinued operations Monday after NASA officials announced that the Lander could no longer be operated with the lack of available power on the Martian surface. The Lander touched down on Mars on May 25.

    “”At this time, we are pretty convinced that the vehicle is no longer available for us to use, so we are actually ceasing operations, declaring an end of mission operations,”” said Barry Goldstein, Phoenix project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

    The mission that was originally scheduled to last 90 days went on for 150 days before a dust storm caused the Lander to lose power and become unresponsive to messages from the Earth-based team. The Lander was last heard from on Nov. 2, Goldstein said.

    “”Since we have been surprised by the robustness of this vehicle for so much, we’re going to continue listening,”” he said. “”We’ll constantly turn on the radio and try to hail Phoenix to see if it is alive, but at this point, nobody has any expectations of that happening. But we do hope that the vehicle will surprise us once again.””

    The main goal of the mission was to investigate a hypothesis that there may be ice on the Martian surface, said Peter Smith, the mission’s principal investigator.

    “”When we landed, we looked around and saw a field of dirt and rock that was spread out to the horizon, and we didn’t see ice right away,”” Smith said. “”It wasn’t until we looked under the spacecraft that we found out we were standing on it.””

    Once Phoenix found ice, Smith said the team was then able to devote their time to truly studying the Martian weather in an attempt to understand where the ice had come from.

    “”You cannot study the surface of an ice layer without knowing the atmosphere above it,”” Smith said.

    Now that the Lander’s mission has come to a close, the first university-led mission to Mars should be considered a complete success, said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

    “”NASA has gotten what they wanted out of this mission. We achieved full mission success back in August, which is obviously the objective,”” McCuistion said. “”Phoenix is past its prime, and its demise is a little earlier than we had hoped, but we’ve certainly gone much longer than the initial 90-day mission that had been proposed and that we anticipated and counted on.””

    With the total cost of the mission reaching about $475 million, McCuistion used lyrics from an Elton John song to summarize Phoenix’s resilience in allowing taxpayers to get their money’s worth.

    “”‘Don’t let the sun go down on me.’ I think that Phoenix has been singing that song, but with the dust storm, I think that it has got the best of it,”” McCuistion said.

    Certain particles in the soil led scientists to believe that there may be water present on the Red Planet, but Smith said no one can be sure until the soil has been put through some final tests.

    “”On Earth, we (could) conclude immediately that there was liquid water in this soil,”” Smith said. “”For Mars, we have to be a little more careful. We’re going to be a little more careful as we develop this story as we can, as we develop our data, but definitely (we think) liquid water has been a part of this soil.””

    The UA’s involvement has played a crucial role in the success of this mission, Smith said.

    “”I think what we have done here is evolve a facility. The university, thankfully, has really contributed an awful lot to this mission out of their own funds,”” Smith said. “”They provided a building for it and rewired it to make it an operations center, so I think in the future, other missions (will) have an opportunity to work with the University of Arizona and do their missions from that center that we’ve developed.””

    Due to this highly developed operations center, Smith said this will not be the end of space-based operation at the UA.

    “”I think the future is very bright for the university being involved in other space missions,”” he said.

    Although operations may be ending on the Phoenix mission, McCuistion was quick to point out that this was not the end of Mars exploration. Rather, it is simply a stepping stone, he said.

    “”Phoenix is passing the mantle. However, the scout program is alive and well. The next scout mission is MAVEN, which is an upper atmospheric research space craft – it’s an orbiter,”” McCuistion said. “”This is a launch in 2013, and that mantle goes from the University of Arizona to the University of Colorado, who is the lead for the MAVEN mission.””

    McCuistion closed by saying that he could not have been more pleased with the overall success of the mission, and he is looking forward to future exploration of the Red Planet.

    “”(NASA) is very pleased with the result of this mission and the mission success that we reached,”” McCuistion said. “”I think the taxpayers should be excited and pleased with their investment here as well, putting an exciting mission on the North Pole of Mars for the very first time – touching the water that we have been after for so many years.””

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