January 18, 2010

NASA To Check For Survival Of Mars Lander

NASA's Mars Odyssey will begin a three-day initiative on Monday to listen for possible, albeit unlikely, radio transmissions from the Phoenix Mars Lander, which was believed frozen near the red planet's north pole following a five month study of the site in November 2008.

"We do not expect Phoenix to have survived, and therefore do not expect to hear from it. However, if Phoenix is transmitting, Odyssey will hear it," said Chad Edwards, chief telecommunications engineer for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The Phoenix landing site has gone through autumn, winter and part of spring since the lander completed its mission to study the arctic site.  

However, the three-legged, solar-powered lander was not designed to endure the extreme temperatures of an arctic Martian winter, where temperatures average minus 195 degrees Fahrenheit.

NASA's Odyssey plan calls for the orbiting spacecraft to make routine passes over the Phoenix landing site and listen for radio transmissions.   If none are detected, NASA will try again next month when the sun is positioned higher on the horizon.

"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," Edwards said.

Phoenix originally landed on Mars in May 2008, and then spent five months conducting experiments.  The lander became the first spacecraft to detect the presence of water on another planet by confirming the existence of ice on Mars.

Phoenix's last communications with Earth occurred in November 2008.

Since seasons on Mars last twice as long as those on Earth, NASA waited until the Martian spring to check on Phoenix, which has been covered in a frost of carbon dioxide.

In the unlikely event that the lander is still in working condition, it has been programmed with a "Lazarus mode" to signal it is still alive.

However, experts are skeptical that the Phoenix survived.

"It's such a low probability," mission scientist Ray Arvidson told the Associated Press.

It is doubtful that Phoenix's solar panels could acquire enough sunlight to charge its batteries.  But even if it does, its science instruments and other electronics may still not be able to work, researchers say.

NASA will soon find out whether the Phoenix will live up to its namesake, the mythical bird that rose from its own ashes.  The name had been chosen because the lander was assembled with hardware and instruments planned for canceled projects.


Image 2: Phoenix lander amid disappearing spring ice. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona


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