NASA Mars Lander Phoenix killed by ice

NASA Mars rover Opportunity only spacecraft operating now on Mars surface

NASA images of Phoenix
NASA officially ended its Phoenix Mars Lander operation today after a new image of the machine showed severe ice damage to its solar panels and repeated attempts to contact the spacecraft had failed. 

The space agency had flown its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) satellite over the lander at least 210 times since January listening for signs of life from the machine. The attempts were made in the off-chance that Phoenix survived a Martian arctic winter the spacecraft was never designed to withstand, NASA stated.

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Indeed an Odyssey image of Phoenix taken this month by its High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, camera suggests the lander no longer casts shadows the way it did during its working lifetime, NASA stated. Apparent changes in the shadows cast by the lander are consistent with predictions of how Phoenix could be damaged by harsh winter conditions. It was anticipated that the weight of a carbon-dioxide ice buildup could bend or break the lander's solar panels. NASA stated it calculated hundreds of pounds of ice probably coated the lander in mid-winter. 

"Before and after images are dramatically different," said Michael Mellon of the University of Colorado in Boulder, a science team member for both Phoenix and HiRISE. "The lander looks smaller, and only a portion of the difference can be explained by accumulation of dust on the lander, which makes its surfaces less distinguishable from surrounding ground." 

If the lander's systems could operate, and its solar panels generate enough electricity to establish a positive energy balance, the lander would try to communicate with any available Mars relay orbiters in an attempt to reestablish contact with Earth. The lander was last heard from, on Nov. 2, 2008.

During its mission, Phoenix examined patches of the widespread deposits of underground water ice detected by Odyssey and identified a mineral called calcium carbonate that suggested occasional presence of thawed water. The lander also found soil chemistry with significant implications for life and observed falling snow. The mission's biggest surprise was the discovery of perchlorate, an oxidizing chemical on Earth that is food for some microbes and potentially toxic for others, NASA stated. 

A similar fate may await NASA's Mars Rover Spirit.  The rover  has disconnected itself with the outside world and is no longer communicating and the space agency says it's not sure when it will wake up.  No communication has been received from the rover since March 22. 

As expected, it is likely that Spirit has experienced a low-power fault will use the available solar array energy to recharge her batteries, NASA said. When the batteries gain enough charge, Spirit will wake up and communicate over X-band. When that does happen, Spirit will also trip an up-loss timer fault. This fault response will let the rover communicate over Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) as well, NASA said. 

NASA said it is now listening for any X-band signal from Spirit through the Deep Space Network. The MRO is also listening over any scheduled UHF relay passes. 

Meanwhile Spirit's sister craft, Opportunity continues moving toward its long-term location, the large Mars crater Endeavour.  

Unless dust interferes, which is unlikely in the coming months NASA says, the solar panels on both rovers should gradually generate more electricity. 

Unlike recent operations, Opportunity will not have to rest to regain energy between driving days. The gradual increase in available sunshine will eventually improve the rate of Opportunity's progress across a vast plain toward the Endeavour Crater. 

This month, some of Opportunity's drives have been planned to end at an energy-favorable tilt on the northern face of small Martian plain surface ripples. The positioning sacrifices some distance to regain energy sooner for the next drive. Opportunity's cameras can see a portion of the rim of Endeavour on the horizon, approximately eight miles away, across the plain's ripples of windblown sand. 

Last week NASA noted that its overall Mars Exploration Rover Project passed an historic Martian longevity record.  On May 20 Opportunity passed the duration record set by NASA's Viking 1 Lander of six years and 116 days operating on the surface of Mars. 

NASA added that Spirit began working on Mars three weeks before Opportunity and if it reawakens it will attain the Martian surface longevity record.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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