Emily LakdawallaApr 14, 2010

No signal from Phoenix

I've been Tweeting updates on the search for signals from Phoenix -- very appropriate for Twitter, since the updates consist of nearly no information -- but now it appears to be time for a real blog entry. After three listening campaigns taking place from January through April, Mars Odyssey has detected no signal from Phoenix.

The Martian north polar lander Phoenix, you may recall, was last heard from on November 2, 2008. It was necessary to wait until considerably after the equinox that brought spring to Mars' north pole (which happened on October 27, 2009) to have any hope of there being enough sunlight to recharge Phoenix' batteries to allow the lander to communicate with the orbiter. NASA did not expect to be able to re-contact Phoenix; in fact, science and engineering teams have been dispersed pretty much since the end of 2008. But there was a remote possibility that Phoenix could survive the winter (during which it was encased in carbon dioxide ice), so the Odyssey team was commanded to tell their spacecraft to listen.

Odyssey listened for Phoenix for dozens of orbits in January and February. In April, during which the Phoenix landing site was bathed in continuous sunlight, Odyssey listened during 60 separate orbits. It detected nothing.

It would appear that Phoenix -- or, if absolutely nothing else, Phoenix' communications system -- is, in the immortal line spoken by Meinhardt Raabe (who passed away last week at the age of 94), "really most sincerely dead."

When Mars landers become inanimate objects, strange alien artifacts abandoned on a weird planet's surface, it's common (at least among those of us who are fans of space exploration) to attempt emotional closure by imagining a future human astronaut or even Martian settler paying a visit to the dead lander, a monument to the ancient beginnings of the human exploration of Mars. Assuming that future Martian explorers value the archaeological remains of our present civilization, they'll likely find the Vikings, Pathfinder, and Spirit and Opportunity to be little changed from their present condition, except for a coating of dust. Phoenix, however, is in a much more dynamic environment. I wonder how many Martian winters it will take to crush Phoenix into a metallic bug splat on the northern polar terrain.

That's a little sad, but it's also cool, because it implies that Mars, the planet, is more "alive" than the robots that we sent to explore it. I'm hereby raising my glass to toast a dynamic Mars, and to express the hope that one day, even as those human explorers acknowledge the corroding artifacts of past civilization, they spend much more of their time examining the ever-changing environments of a living Mars.

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