Diagram courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
Published May 25, 2010
The lights have officially gone out for NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander.
After several unsuccessful attempts to reestablish communication, a picture of the lander taken from orbit shows at least part of the craft's solar panels has broken off.
As seen in the pictures above, Phoenix shines with a bluish tint in a shot taken July 20, 2008, by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. In a picture taken May 7, 2010, the lander is darkened by a covering of reddish material.
Phoenix now appears smaller, and its shadow has changed shape.
"We assumed that one of the most likely things that would cause it to perish over the winter would be ice buildup on the solar arrays, causing them to collapse," said Barry Goldstein, project manager for the Phoenix team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
"The image confirms that this is exactly what happened."
No Hope Phoenix Lander Will Rise Again
The Phoenix Mars Lander touched down near Mars's north pole on May 25, 2008. The stationary craft reported on polar conditions for five months.
Although Phoenix was never designed to withstand Martian winter, it was programed with an energy-saving "Lazarus mode." Scientists had hoped the craft might be able to maintain enough power to reawaken when sunlight returned in the spring.
NASA started a listening campaign when spring arrived on Mars in January 2010. Another orbiter, Mars Odyssey, periodically flew over the lander's location and tuned in to any potential radio communications.
But during all four flybys, Phoenix stayed silent.
The new picture is the final nail in the coffin: Most likely, carbon dioxide froze out of the Martian atmosphere during the harsh polar winter. The sheer weight broke the solar panel, depriving Phoenix of its ability to collect enough sunlight to stay alive, Goldstein said.
In its time on Mars, the lander made several important finds, including verification that there is water ice in Mars's surface soil. Phoenix also saw snow falling on Mars and found mineral deposits indicating that temperatures occasionally rise above freezing, important for the prospect of life on the red planet.
The lander will now be left to the Martian elements. Storms may clear dust from the remaining solar arrays, Goldstein added, but with Phoenix's parts broken, there is no hope that power will be restored.
How to Feed Our Growing Planet
National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.
The Innovators Project
Meet some of science's most important movers and shakers—from past and present.
Latest News Video
During a recent voyage along South America's eastern coast, Justin Hofman was surprised to get close-up footage of an unfazed mother whale and her newborn calf.