NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor (wikipedia), has remained out of contract with controllers for over two weeks, reports Space Today and New Scientist. Project officials said Tuesday it’s unlikely they will ever regain control of the aging orbital spacecraft.

Other than a brief, faint signal detected on November 5, MGS has not communicated with Earth since November 2 despite many efforts by ground controllers to contact the spacecraft. On Monday NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft tried to take images of MGS as the two spacecraft passed close to each other in their separate orbits, but MGS was not seen in any of the images. Engineers are still working through alternative means to establish communications, including plans later this week to send commands to MGS directing it to transmit a signal to the twin Mars Exploration Rovers on the surface, but consider it unlikely MGS can be recovered at this point.

Officials said that the most likely cause for the failure is a problem with one of the spacecraft’s two solar panels, preventing it from pivoting to track the Sun and thus depriving the spacecraft of power. MGS, launched ten years ago this month, long ago exceeded its planned mission.

Primary communications to and from the spacecraft use the X-Band, near 8.4 GHz, going through the on-board 1.5-meter-diameter (4.9-foot) high-gain antenna. The 25 Watt X-Band radio has a signal strength of less than one millionth of one billionth of a Watt by the time it reaches the 34-meter (112-foot) dishes at NASA’s Deep Space Network located in the Mojave desert, Spain, and Australia.

The Surveyor probe rose “from the ashes” of the $813 million Mars Observer which disappeared in 1993 just before getting to the planet due to a rupture in a hydrazine tank. Most of that probe’s instruments were built again and included on the 1996 Mars Global Surveyor. The Mars Climate Orbiter mission (1998) was lost due to a metric Vs English conversion screw-up, while the Mars Polar Lander (1999) was lost due to a software bug.

The $154 million Mars Surveyor, was supposed to last only two years but continued sending data for almost a decade. Important discoveries about Mars made by MGS include:

  • The spacecraft’s camera found gullies cut into many slopes that have few, if any, impact craters. This indicates the gullies are geologically young. Scientists interpret this as evidence of action by liquid water, essentially in modern times.
  • The mineral-mapping infrared spectrometer found concentrations of a mineral that often forms under wet conditions, fine-grained hematite. This discovery led to selection of a hematite-rich region as the landing site for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity.
  • Laser altimeter measurements have produced an unprecedented global topographic map of Mars. The instrument revealed a multitude of highly eroded or buried craters too subtle for previous observation, and mapped canyons within the polar ice caps.
  • The magnetometer found localized remnant magnetic fields, indicating that Mars once had a global magnetic field like Earth’s, shielding the surface from deadly cosmic rays.
  • The camera found a fan-shaped area of interweaving, curved ridges interpreted as evidence of an ancient river delta resulting from persistent flow of water over an extended period in the planet’s ancient past.
  • A long life allowed Global Surveyor to track changes through repeated annual cycles. For three Martian summers in a row, deposits of carbon-dioxide ice near Mars’ South Pole shrunk from the previous year’s size, suggesting a climate change in progress.

The Mars Global Surveyor, orbiting Mars since 1997, and Mars Odyssey, orbiting since 2001, established a relay capacity that the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity have used extensively since their 2004 landings.

The newest orbiting spacecraft, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), has dual roles as a science mission and a telecommunications satellite. It will support communications between Earth and future Mars surface missions, such as the 2007 Phoenix Mars Lander and 2009 Mars Science Laboratory.

The Phoenix Lander, launching in 2007, aims to land in the high northern latitudes of Mars to search for frozen water and any indications of past habitable conditions. Astrobiology Magazine talks with Carol Stoker of NASA Ames on what Phoenix can expect to find. Phoenix has a rotor to grind up the ice, and those ice crystals will go into a scoop for analysis.

Mike’s Vision for Space seems to align with the needs of Boeing and Lockheed for Star Wars  — of course that’s probably just coincidental.

Thanks Mars Global Surveyor! You did a great job.

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