Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The End Of The Phoenix Mission Is Near

It's common in late October for the temperature at Phoenix's arctic landing site to drop to well over -100 degrees Farenheit . The Phoenix lander is equipped with heaters to withstand the extreme cold, but there is now a bigger concern.

Winter on the far northern part of the Martian planet is coming, and days on the Arctic plains are shortening. As a result, the solar panels on Phoenix will soon not generate enough power.

Recognizing the inevitable, NASA has just announced that Phoenix's days to see and explore Mars are numbered.

However, NASA originally scheduled research on Mars for ninety days. Indeed, the extended length of this Phoenix Mission should promote its success. In November,the Lander will have analyzed the planets surface and atmosphere for more than five months.

So, what did the Phoenix find in the last five months on the martian surface? The test results of the samples will be analyzed for some time, but here are some initial observations from NASA:

The lander found evidence that the chemical makeup of the dust on the surface of Mars resembles that of sea water, adding to evidence that liquid water that once may have supported life flowed on the planet's surface.

Phoenix experiments also yielded clues pointing to calcium carbonate, the main composition of chalk, and particles that could be clay. Most carbonates and clays on Earth form only in the presence of liquid water.

The Phoenix lander detected snow falling from Martian clouds. A laser instrument designed to gather knowledge of how the atmosphere and surface interact on Mars has detected snow from clouds about 2.5 miles above the spacecraft's landing site. Data also shows the snow vaporizing before reaching the ground.

Recently, Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona was quoted as follows: "Mars is giving us some surprises. We're excited because surprises are where discoveries come from.

Smith continued: "One surprise is how the soil is behaving. The ice-rich layers stick to the scoop when poised in the sun above the deck, different from what we expected from all the Mars simulation testing we've done. That has presented challenges for delivering samples, but we're finding ways to work with it and we're gathering lots of information to help us understand this soil."

Over the next several weeks, four survival heaters will be shut down, one at a time, in an effort to conserve power. The heaters serve the purpose of keeping the electronics within tested survivable limits.

As each heater is disabled, some of the instruments are also expected to cease operations. The energy saved is intended to power the lander's main camera and meteorological instruments until the very end. "At that point, Phoenix will be at the mercy of Mars," said Chris Lewicki of JPL, lead mission manger.

For background on the Phoenix Mission, read: The Phoenix Mission Replaces Hollywood In Martian Exploration on

No comments: