NASA to Check Whether Phoenix Survived the Winter

No, Arizona, the space agency will not be making a visit to your lovely but likely unharmed state capital.

Instead, scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are hoping against hope that the Phoenix Mars Lander might have somehow made it through harsh winter conditions at its final resting place in the Martian arctic.


Phoenix amid the spring ice, as seen by the MRO on January 6

—Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Phoenix touched down on the red planet in May 2008 and made a host of wet ‘n’ wild discoveries during its five months in operation.

For example, the lander saw snow falling on Mars, “tasted” Martian water dug up from the soil, and may have even seen modern liquid water in the form of salty drops perched on its own leg.

But with the onset of winter in November 2008, frigid temperatures and a lack of sunlight got the better of the plucky little lander: NASA mission managers announced that the solar-powered Phoenix had stopped transmitting, and most folks were certain they’d heard the last from the craft.

The lander’s designers, however, had taken the name to heart. Phoenix was programmed with an energy-saving mode, offering a small chance that the craft could come back to life [like its mythical namesake] if its hardware survives the icy winter near Mars’s north pole.

Today Phoenix has sat through winter and should be thawing out with the opening of Martian spring. So just to be sure, NASA is asking its Mars Odyssey orbiter to keep an ear out for radio transmissions from the lander for part of this month and most of February and March.

Odyssey will also ping Phoenix a few times in the hopes of eliciting a response.

“We will perform a sufficient number of Odyssey contact attempts that if we don’t detect a transmission from Phoenix, we can have a high degree of confidence that the lander is not active,” Chad Edwards, chief telecommunications engineer for the Mars Exploration Program at JPL, said in a statement.

The saga adds a glimmer of hope to what has otherwise seemed like a depressing period in Martian robotics.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spent most of last summer in and out of “safe” mode … a sign of mysterious anomalies onboard the workhorse spacecraft.

Meanwhile, after six years of activity, the stuck Spirit rover could be on the verge of death, NASA says.

And the next big Mars mission, the Curiosity rover, continues to be hounded by technical difficulties.

If Odyssey gets a reply, it’ll be instructed to ask for a status check so NASA can assess what Phoenix is still able to do after its long sleep. It may be that the lander survived but in such a scientifically crippled state that it wouldn’t be worth it to resume operations.

Of course, by most accounts there’s a strong chance Phoenix won’t rise to the challenge. It gets down to -300 degrees Fahrenheit (-184 degrees Celsius) in the Martian arctic, people, and the stationary lander just wasn’t built to last under those conditions.

Still, I find my spirits lifted by these words Edwards offered the Arizona Daily Star: “We owe it to the lander, for all the good science it did, to give it a shot.”

Human Journey