NASA satellite to scan for signs of life from old Mars spacecraft

NASA Mars Odyssey to listen for frozen Phoenix lander signals

NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter will next week make a number of passes over the presumed dead Phoenix Mars Lander on the surface of the planet and listen for what the space agency called possible, though improbable, radio transmissions.

Odyssey will pass over the Phoenix landing site about 10 times this month and two longer listening tries in February and March trying to determine if the craft survived Martian winter and try to lock onto a signal and gain information about the lander’s status.

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Should the lander show signs of life, it should follow instructions programmed on its computer. If systems still operate, once its solar panels generate enough electricity to establish a positive energy balance, the lander would periodically try to communicate with any available Mars relay orbiters in an attempt to reestablish contact with Earth. During each try, the lander would alternately use each of its two radios and each of its two antennas, NASA stated.

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is monitoring the craft, said the Phoenix site is seeing about the same amount of sunshine as when the lander was last heard from, on Nov. 2, 2008, with the Sun above the horizon about 17 hours each day.

The Phoenix Mars Lander went silent last November, after successfully completing its mission and returning unprecedented primary science phase and returning science data to Earth, NASA stated.

NASA said the lander operated two months longer than its planned three-month mission during summer on northern Mars before the seasonal ebb of sunshine ended its work. Since then, Phoenix’s landing site has gone through autumn, winter and part of spring. The lander’s hardware was not designed to survive the temperature extremes and ice-coating load of an arctic Martian winter, NASA said.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter last year snapped a dry-ice frost-encrusted Phoenix Lander with its High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE camera.

The captured one image of the Phoenix lander on July 30, 2009, and the other on Aug. 22, 2009. That's when the sun began peeking over the horizon of the northern polar plains during winter, the NASA team said.

Martian winter is also playing a part in a possible deather scenario of another NASA Mars spacecraft, the Mars rover Spirit. NASA recently celebrated Spirit’s sixth anniversary exploring the red planet. But the space agency is also looking for a way to keep the machine, which is mired in a sand trap, alive to see a seventh year. On its Web site, the space agency recently noted there may indeed be such an option.

That option would be spinning the wheels on the north side of Spirit, letting it dig in deeper in the Martian sand but at the same time improving the tilt of the rover’s solar panels toward the Sun.

According to NASA: “Spirit is in the southern hemisphere of Mars, where it is autumn, and the amount of daily sunshine available for the solar-powered rover is declining. This could result in ceasing extraction activities as early as January, depending on the amount of remaining power. Spirit's tilt, nearly five degrees toward the south, is unfavorable because the winter sun crosses low in the northern sky.”

Spirit has been stuck in a place NASA calls "Troy" since April 23 when the rover's wheels broke through a crust on the surface that was covering brightly-toned, slippery sand underneath. After a few drive attempts to get Spirit out in the subsequent days, it began sinking deeper in the sand trap.

Still there is little doubt the highly successful rover might be on its last legs regardless of the approaching winter. NASA said in February, it will assess Mars missions, including Spirit, for their potential science versus costs to determine how to distribute limited resources.

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