The Sciences

Did Phoenix lose a wing?

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitMay 24, 2010 6:00 PM

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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

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