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Lights out for Mars Phoenix? September 30, 2008

Posted by Sarah in science.
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As the light is fading at Mars’ Northern pole, Mars Phoenix, the lander that has explored the surface of the planet since May this year (and everyone’s favourite Twitter feed) faces a race against time to gather more science data.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University

Nine images taken by the Surface Stereo Imager on NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander shows the sun rising on the morning of the lander's 101st Martian day after landing. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University

In a NASA press conference held last night, the Mars Phoenix team leaders outlined the future of the lander for the months to come. After a period of continuous sunshine and energy aplenty, Phoenix now faces a gradual but steady decline in the amount of power it can gain from the fading Sun that will sink lower on the horizon, before disappearing completely for 3 months early next April. The amount of power it gains per Sol is already down by a third since its peak. At the same time, the dipping temperatures will increase Phoenix’ power requirements, worsening its woes. But as Phoenix has been in excellent health throughout the mission and has produced some exciting results, the mission team have decided to keep it alive until winter sets in, despite the bleak outlook, to gather the maximum amount of data from the planet’s surface.

Meanwhile results from Phoenix are continuing to advance our understanding of Martian surface composition and chemistry by leaps and bounds. The meteorological instrument on board the lander, MET, has spotted snow falling from clouds around 4 km above the landing site and vapourising before it falls to the ground. Experiments with both the wet chemistry lab MECA and Phoenix’ oven TEGA on soil samples show evidence of carbonates in the Martian soil, pointing towards interactions with liquid water in the past. “We now have enough information to rewrite the book on the geochemistry of Mars, using the discovery of perchlorate and carbonate,” said Mike Hecht, lead scientist for MECA. Great stuff!

Once the Sun begins to rise again some time around next July, the vehicle will attempt to power up and contact the NASA team. But judging by the scientists’ tone, Phoenix’ rise from the ashes of winter would be something of a miracle.

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