Say Goodbye to Phoenix Mars Lander

It Served us Well

Two images of the Phoenix Mars lander taken from Martian orbit in 2008 and 2010. The 2008 lander image (left) shows two relatively blue spots on either side corresponding to the spacecraft’s clean circular solar panels. In the 2010 (right) image scientists see a dark shadow that could be the lander body and eastern solar panel, but no shadow from the western solar panel. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

The Phoenix Mars Lander is officially a thing of the past. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced on May 24 that controllers had given up trying to contact the lander.  They had been trying since Martian winter abated, by using the Mars Odyssey orbiter to make radio contact with the lander.

If you look at the “before-and-after” image to the left (taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) you should be able to figure out why:  it doesn’t look like it’s in very good shape in the right-hand image. The lander did not survive the harsh Martian winter. Hundreds of pounds of carbon dioxide ice probably coated the lander throughout the winter, and that would have destroyed the solar panels, at the very least.

While it was “alive” the lander returned data about the Martian polar region where it landed — enough data to keep scientists busy analyzing it for years.  The information the spacecraft sent back is revising scientists’ understanding of Mars, particularly the ice-bearing regions which had never been explored in situ before Phoenix arrived.  (In situ is a latin term meaning “in the place”.)  We still have orbiters and landers on Mars, and there are new missions in planning and being built. Next to fly to Mars will be the Mars Science Laboratory — recently named Curiousity –, which I had the chance to see in its clean room at JPL this past week. It will launch in 2011. Once it lands on Mars, the laboratory will do what its name implies — do laboratory studies on the surface of the Red Planet. Our exploration of Mars continues on, and Phoenix was a large part of it.  Remember her well!

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