The Phoenix Mars Lander has not communicated since Nov. 2, and engineers from the mission assume the vehicle is now completely out of power. Therefore, at a news conference today, mission managers announced the Phoenix the mission is now officially over. “At this time we’re pretty convinced the vehicle is no longer available for us to use, and we’re declaring the end of the mission,” said Barry Goldstein, Phoenix project manager. “We’ve been surprised by this vehicle before, and we’re still listening. We’ll try to hail Phoenix, but no one has the expectation we’ll hear from it again. We’re completely proud of what we’ve accomplished. We’ve achieved all of the science goals and then some.”
But there’s still more to come from Phoenix, as scientists can now focus fully on analyzing the science data returned by the lander. Could Phoenix have found possible organic substances on Mars?
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Peter Smith, Principal Investigator for Phoenix, didn’t rule out the possibility. “We haven’t analyzed the data at that level yet,” he said. “These are subtle signatures. We have the data sets that could reveal that. But until we actually do the work, we can’t say we didn’t find it…I’m still holding out hope here. Its’ really a question of what is the truth on Mars, and we’re trying to make sure we get the right answer here and not come rushing out with a quick analysis. This is very tricky stuff and the data sets are quite complex in regards to organics.”
Tests done by Phoenix didn’t reveal the acid soils Smith and his team were expecting to find, but alkaline salts and perchlorates, which are possible energy sources and nutrients for microbes. Smith doesn’t think there’s anything alive on Mars now, its just too cold. “It’s possible that in a warmer and wetter period on it Mars, it could have been habitable,” he said.
As anticipated, the seasonal decline in sunshine at the arctic landing site is not providing enough sunlight for the solar arrays to collect the power necessary to charge batteries that operate the lander’s instruments. And a dust storm at the landing site made the sunlight decrease even further, ending the mission a little sooner than the team had hoped.
As for any possibility of re-contacting the lander next year when spring returns to Mars’ northern arctic, Goldstein didn’t rule it out, but said its not very likely. “By the mid October (2009) time frame, there would be enough sunlight hitting the solar arrays to create power,” he said. “But its highly unlikely the vehicle will come back. It will be encased in CO2 ice, in temperatures under -150 C. The solar arrays will likely crack and fall off the vehicle,… the electronics will become brittle and break, so the wiring boards won’t work. But this vehicle has behaved so superlatively, we’ll look again in October.”
Look for an official epitaph for Phoenix from Universe Today soon.