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Phoenix, Gone But Not Forgotten

Great stars don’t die, they just fade away.

It’s been almost two months since NASA lost contact with the Phoenix Mars Lander, which had been studying icy soils near the red planet’s north pole.


The lander’s surface stereo imager made a mosaic to show the craft from a few feet in the air—that black spot is where the camera is mounted.

—Image courtesy NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University

As summer moved into fall, sunlight began to fade and temperatures dropped too far for the lander to keep up operations, bringing the just over five-month mission to a nominal end.

One thing that’s been made clear is that 2008 was the summer of the Phoenix.

Posters on astronomy outreach presented at this year’s AAS winter meeting showed that Mars dominated news coverage for the year.

And many year-end “top ten” lists include something about the lander—the reader-generated list over at Universe Today even has Phoenix listed as the #1 scientific endeavor of 2008.

There’s slim hope that a built-in revival mode could bring Phoenix back from the proverbial ashes when Mars warms up again, but for now the lander is nothing more than a silent feature of the Martian geography.

Still, Mars is a popular place, and other more active craft are there to help NASA keep tabs on the lander as the seasons change.


—Image courtesy NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

On December 21 the orbiting HiRISE camera snapped its first shot of Phoenix since it stopped talking, a large-field view of the craft and its various landing components.

The monitoring images will check for frosty buildup, dust, and atmospheric haze.

This one’s not quite on par with HiRISE’s artier images (like the gorgeous shot of dunes in Russell Crater below), but then NASA did pick this “parking lot” site for the lander based more on safety and scientific interest than aesthetics.


—Image courtesy NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

There’s also an issue of scale. At 18 feet (5.5 meters) long, poor Phoenix is a mere speck on the face of Mars to the orbiting camera—roughly akin to looking for a single MINI Cooper from the International Space Station.

It’s a high-res camera, but not that hi-res!

I’ll be interested to see whether the orbiter eventually sees the lander encased in ice, although in just a few months NASA predicts the craft’s location will get no sun at all, rendering optical images near impossible.

Then we’ll all just have to wait for winter’s cold embrace to end to see if there’s any hope Phoenix can be reborn.


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