NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander stops communicating

Mission deemed a full success

After five busy months, NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander has tasted its last morsel of Martian soil and viewed its last Martian landscape. Engineers announced in a November 10 teleconference that the mission is, for all intents and purposes, finished.

The waning Martian day and an inopportune dust storm starved the lander’s solar arrays of sunlight. Without the requisite solar power, the robot ceased to function.

Phoenix conducted experiments for five months, two months longer than the mission was slated to last after the lander’s May 25 arrival on the Red Planet.

Engineers last made contact with Phoenix on November 2. Despite scientists’ regular attempts to reconnect at two-hour intervals, the lander has remained silent. Engineers say they will attempt to contact the robot for several more weeks, but they don’t hold out much hope.

“It’s rather tough living up above the arctic circle,” said Barry Goldstein, Phoenix project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., during the teleconference.

Temperatures may drop to between –150° and –180º Celsius during the Martian winter, which will damage the robot’s sensitive equipment. Phoenix will likely spend the winter encased in carbon dioxide ice, and even the return of sunlight in October 2009 will be too late to revive Phoenix. But don’t despair, say engineers.

“It’s an Irish wake instead of a funeral,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Now that the operations are complete, the science team can focus on analyzing the data that Phoenix collected during its mission.

Along with ice, Phoenix found perchlorate and calcium carbonates in the Martian soil, providing scientists with more details about properties of the Martian landscape. Fittingly for the approach of winter, Phoenix also witnessed snow falling on the surface of Mars.

The Phoenix team plans to publish their full assessment of the data, which may ultimately answer questions about life on Mars, soon.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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