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Emily LakdawallaOctober 28, 2008

The beginning of the end for Phoenix: No more robotic arm operations

NASA and JPL issued a statement today that marks the beginning of Phoenix' descent into death. But by taking the steps outlined in today's statement, the mission hopes to put off that death as long as possible.

With less and less sunlight each sol, and more frequent cloudy days, Phoenix' solar cells are generating less power each day. At the same time, it's getting colder, so the spacecraft is requiring more and more power just to keep its instruments and systems warm. Soon there will not be enough power generated each day to power the heaters and still manage to do any operations.

So the team is going to have to start powering down those survival heaters, and accept the resultant loss of function. Here are the steps described in today's statement:

I know I'm not alone in regarding Phoenix and the Mars Exploration Rovers as though they were living creatures, emissaries from Earth sending dispatches back from the frontiers of the solar system. But the fact is that Mars is, for now anyway, an environment that is just too harsh for humans to survive. That's why we send robots. We have to accept that they're going to die, eventually. It's hard to decide which type of end to a space mission is more emotionally painful: the long, lingering declines of Phoenix and Ulysses; the kamikaze self-destruction of Magellan and Galileo; or the sudden disappearance of Pathfinder and Mars Global Surveyor. Predictability is better than surprise, I guess. We know Phoenix is going, but we're letting it go slowly and gently.
The sun sets on Phoenix

NASA / UA / art by Corby Waste

The sun sets on Phoenix
As the Sun sets on Phoenix and polar twilight begins, the spacecraft will no longer be able to charge its batteries and will shut down. Later in the winter, the spacecraft will become buried in ice.
I know I've been remiss in following up on Phoenix over the last few weeks -- I had felt that my Phoenix updates were getting bogged down in operational details, without much news to offer in the form of analysis or results. I still don't have much in the way of results for you, but I am pleased to see that there is a full slate of presentations on Phoenix planned for the first day of the American Geophysical Union meeting, December 15. Here is a list of all the presentations in the morning's poster session, and here is a list of all the talks in the afternoon oral session. I don't know yet if I am going to be able to go, but I'm exploring the possibility.

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Emily Lakdawalla

Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for The Planetary Society
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