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Phoenix Lander is No More
Posted In: Technology Articles  5/27/10
By: Chris Capps

NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander had a good run by most standards.  The craft originally intended to have a short run in 2008 measuring weather conditions from Mars' North pole withstanding freezing temperatures far beyond what the craft was ever intended to endure.  But there was a system placed on-board with the intention of reviving it after the long winter was over.

The Mars Lander was photographed on July 20, 2008 by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to establish that the craft was still on the Martian Surface and operating, but since then the extreme temperatures of the Martian polar winter eventually froze the craft.  Barry Goldstein of the Phoenix Team's Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena confirmed that the "death" had happened almost exactly how they had expected it to.  The only surprise was when the Lazarus system did not revive it afterward, "We assumed that one of the most likely things that would cause it to perish over the winter would be ice buildup on the solar arrays, causing them to collapse.  The image confirms that this is exactly what happened."

Originally, scientists had hoped that the system's "Lazarus mode" would allow the system to remain dormant throughout the winter and then store up enough energy to melt the ice crystals that may form on the solar panels, allowing it an opportunity to heat up after the winter was over and resume its survey of the red planet.  Unfortunately, the system was not strong enough to melt through the winter buildup and the Phoenix Lander has officially been declared deceased.

The unfortunate news broke after scientists hoped that the January Spring on Mars might revive the system two years ahead of schedule.  With the Mars Odyssey overlooking the system as it lay dormant on the ground scientists held their breath and hoped for any sign that the lander may be revived.  When it never happened, they began studying exactly what may have gone wrong.  Freezing carbon dioxide may have precipitated onto the solar panel.  Eventually, the weight from this extreme form of ice may have snapped off the solar panel, essentially cutting its only possible means of collecting energy.  The final photograph of the lander verified that the system was completely inoperable and not salvageable by remote means.

But the lander did have a fairly good run.  Though it only effectively operated for a short period of time, the Phoenix was the system that verified the presence of H20 on Mars, and it also even caught evidence of snow falling from the sky as well.  Unfortunately it was this very precipitation that most likely ended its short stay on Mars.  Perhaps in future dates the lander will serve another purpose: as a monument to the achievements acquired by NASA and other space agencies from around the world in an effort to expand humanity one day beyond Earth.  In the meantime, the lander will remain as a testament to the potential that mankind may one day walk the Martian surface.


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