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The space agency said today that its Mars Odyssey orbiter flew over the lander 11 times between Jan. 19 and 20, without hearing anything from Phoenix. Nineteen more listening overflights are planned this month and more in February and March.
The attempts are being made because of what NASA calls the unlikely scenario that Phoenix survived Martian arctic winter conditions the spacecraft was never designed to withstand.
If the lander did show signs of life, it would 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.
Phoenix landed on Mars on May 25, 2008, and operated successfully about two months longer than its planned three-month mission near the Martian north polar region.
Martian winter is also playing a part in a possible death 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.
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