Phoenix Has Gone Silent

Dick writes about Earth and planetary science for Science magazine.

It's final. NASA mission managers announced in a telephone press conference today that the Phoenix lander is in all likelihood sitting dead on the high arctic plains of Mars. They have not heard from the spacecraft for a week. The gathering gloom of an encroaching martian winter and a sudden shading by a dust storm drained its solar-powered batteries to the point of no return, project manager Barry Goldstein of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, reported. "We're pretty convinced the vehicle is no longer available," he said. "We're declaring [the] end of operations."

The end came several weeks earlier than expected, cutting off a final analysis being run in one of the analytical ovens. But by then, Phoenix had accomplished a lot. All four of the wet chemistry cells and seven of the eight ovens had been used in soil analyses as well as 10 microscope slides examined, reported Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson. Team members had already announced the detection of signs of interaction of the soil with water, a key goal of the mission (ScienceNOW, 30 September, but the top priority--showing that microbes could have lived in the soil Phoenix landed on back during warmer times--remains unfulfilled. Further analysis may yet achieve that, but team members expect no further help from their instruments on Mars. Winter is having its way and the extreme cold of the next year, said Goldstein, makes it "highly unlikely" Phoenix will rise again come martian spring.

Posted in Space