Mars Phoenix Lander: Mission Accomplished

Posted by Sam Churchill on

Succumbing to a swirling dust storm and the cold of an encroaching Martian winter, the Phoenix Mars lander fell quiet for a day, before coming back to life Thursday evening, albeit weakly, says the NY Times. The lander successfully communicated with the Mars Odyssey orbiter Thursday evening.

The Phoenix Lander landed in May, during spring in the Martian northern polar region, to study a vast expanse of ice just below the surface. It has found signs that the ice may have melted in the past — the presence of carbonates, which form in the presence of liquid water — but its measurements also show current conditions to be very dry.

The lander’s last experiment, using a small oven to cook a sample of soil, was completed over the weekend. Data from the experiment was sent back before the shutdown and could answer whether the Martian soil contains organic compounds.

The Phoenix’s mission was scheduled to last three months but was extended to allow scientists to squeeze every bit of data from the spacecraft.

Now, with the dwindling sunlight of the Martian winter, the lander’s solar panels will produce less energy.

A dust storm on Monday further reduced the amount of power the panels could produce. Coupled with the energy drain from the last experiment and surface temperatures as low as minus-141 degrees Fahrenheit at night, the spacecraft put itself into its safe mode on Tuesday, shutting down nonessential activities.

The lander also shut down one of its two batteries and switched to backup electronics systems, and some energy-saving commands sent to the primary electronics were not performed.

Even though the lander revived, its demise is probably less than a month away. Peter H. Smith of the University of Arizona, the mission’s principal investigator, said it would be nice to watch winter develop through the lander’s instruments. “But that’s gravy,” Mr. Smith said. “We got what we came for.”

The Phoenix Mission inherited a spacecraft partially built for the Mars Surveyor Program 2001 and lessons learned from the Mars Polar Lander. NASA canceled the follow-on Mars Surveyor 2001, which was then stored in a Class 100,000 clean high-bay facility at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, in Littleton, Colorado. That craft was used to create Phoenix.

Communication was primarily through a UHF relay on the Mars 2001 Odyssey orbiter, but the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Express can also be used as relays. Phoenix also has a steerable medium gain X-band antenna to provide communications directly with Earth. A UHF antenna on the lander deck will handle outgoing and incoming communications.

Phoenix relays communication via Mars orbiters using the same international standard used by the Mars Express and the Mars rovers, called the Proximity-1 protocol. It was developed by the international Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems, an international partnership for standardizing techniques for handling space data.

CCSDS provides a forum for discussion of common problems of space data systems. Some 346 missions utilize the protocol.

In other news, the mission to fix Hubble Telescope has been postponed. Astronauts were mere weeks away from launching to the Hubble Space Telescope aboard the space shuttle Atlantis in late September, with spacewalks planned to make the telescope more powerful than ever and extend its expected lifespan an additional five years.

That flight had to be postponed when the onboard computer that downlinks scientific data to the ground suddenly failed on September 27th. While that problem has been corrected using a back-up system, NASA managers have decided the computer needs to be completely replaced in order to keep a fully redundant back-up capability available. Now Hubble managers say ground testing of a critical replacement computer that they hope to install on the orbiting telescope is taking longer than previously expected.

Meanwhile, Cassini’s first four years at Saturn have bedazzled with stunning images and spooky sounds.

With the start of the Equinox mission, the team promises to scare up many more treats as they continue studying the eerie glow of Saturn’s rings, the spine-tingling thunder on the planet, the hair-raising jets on Enceladus, and the murky brew on Titan. A full view of their ghostly Saturn can be seen at

Instead of just zooming in on photographs of the night sky as seen from Earth (as you do with Google Sky), Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope can also travel through a 3D model of the Solar System, the stars in our galaxy and out past the furthest observable galaxies and quasars. Virtual universes from Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope, Celestia, and Hayden’s Digital Universe are compared by Ogle Earth.

Additional Dailywireless articles include; Mars Update, The Ultimate Scoop and Mars Landing Sunday.

Posted by Sam Churchill on Friday, October 31st, 2008 at 6:14 am .

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