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Hubble getting better…

It seems that the tender loving care provided by NASA technicians has worked, and the ailing Hubble Space Telescope – which has been out of action since suffering a series of technical faults and glitches in September – is now feeling a bit better…

The Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 has been successfully switched back on, and is due to start taking pictures again soon. And these will be the last pictures it takes; it is due to be replaced by astronauts in February, when the space shuttle Endeavour blasts off on the fifth and final “Servicing Mission”.

In the next few days engineers will try to switch back on more of Hubble’s instruments, allowing it to carry on its work until the spacewalks in February give it a whole new lease of life.

Good to have Hubble back!

Oppy – Deep Into the Sea of Sand…

Opportunity has now left Victoria Crater far behind her, and is making her way slowly but steadily into the Great Sea of Sand that lies between her and her next – and final – destination: Endeavour Crater.

Here’s a 3D pic showing the view from Oppy yesterday – showing large dust dunes blown into beautiful waves and ripples by the gentle, but persistent, martian wind…

Click on it for a full size, more detailed version…

Phoenix: The Far Lady isn’t singing yet…

,,, but she’s definitely tuning up in the wings…

A very important email from NASA dropped into my email box earlier tonight…

In a race against time and the elements, engineers with NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander mission hope to extend the lander’s survival by gradually shutting down some of its instruments and heaters, starting today.

Originally scheduled to last 90 days, Phoenix has completed a fifth month of exploration in the Martian arctic. As expected, with the Martian northern hemisphere shifting from summer to fall, the lander is generating less power due to shorter days and fewer hours of sunlight reaching its solar panels. At the same time, the spacecraft requires more power to run several survival heaters that allow it to operate even as temperatures decline.

“If we did nothing, it wouldn’t be long before the power needed to operate the spacecraft would exceed the amount of power it generates on a daily basis,” said Phoenix Project Manager Barry Goldstein of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “By turning off some heaters and instruments, we can extend the life of the lander by several weeks and still conduct some science.”

Over the next several weeks, four survival heaters will be shut down, one at a time, in an effort to conserve power. The heaters serve the purpose of keeping the electronics within tested survivable limits. As each heater is disabled, some of the instruments are also expected to cease operations. The energy saved is intended to power the lander’s main camera and meteorological instruments until the very end of the mission.
 
Later today, engineers will send commands to disable the first heater. That heater warms Phoenix’s robotic arm, robotic-arm camera, and thermal and evolved-gas analyzer (TEGA), an instrument that bakes and sniffs Martian soil to assess volatile ingredients. Shutting down this heater is expected to save 250 watt-hours of power per Martian day.

The Phoenix team has parked the robotic arm on a representative patch of Martian soil. No additional soil samples will be gathered. The thermal and electrical-conductivity probe (TECP), located on the wrist of the arm, has been inserted into the soil and will continue to measure soil temperature and conductivity, along with atmospheric humidity near the surface. The probe does not need a heater to operate and should continue to send back data for weeks.

Throughout the mission, the lander’s robotic arm successfully dug and scraped Martian soil and delivered it to the onboard laboratories. “We turn off this workhorse with the knowledge that it has far exceeded expectations and conducted every operation asked of it,” said Ray Arvidson, the robotic arm’s co-investigator, and a professor at Washington University, St. Louis.

When power levels necessitate further action, Phoenix engineers will disable a second heater, which serves the lander’s pyrotechnic initiation unit. The unit hasn’t been used since landing, and disabling its heater is expected to add four to five days to the mission’s lifetime. Following that step, engineers would disable a third heater, which warms Phoenix’s main camera — the Surface Stereo Imager –and the meteorological suite of instruments. Electronics that operate the meteorological instruments should generate enough heat on their own to keep most of those instruments and the camera functioning.
 
In the final step, Phoenix engineers may turn off a fourth heater — one of two survival heaters that warm the spacecraft and its batteries. This would leave one remaining survival heater to run out on its own. 

“At that point, Phoenix will be at the mercy of Mars,” said Chris Lewicki of JPL, lead mission manger.

Engineers are also preparing for solar conjunction, when the sun is directly between Earth and Mars. Between Nov. 28 and Dec. 13, Mars and the sun will be within two degrees of each other as seen from Earth, blocking radio transmission between the spacecraft and Earth. During that time, no commands will be sent to Phoenix, but daily downlinks from Phoenix will continue through NASA’s Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance orbiters.  At this time, controllers can’t predict whether the fourth heater would be disabled before or after conjunction.

What does that mean, exactly? Well, it means that if Phoenix was standing near a wall, she could swivel her camera mast around and photograph the writing on it… and that writing would read “The End Is Nigh.” It means that Phoenix’s controllers will soon have to start turning bits off to save energy, in an effort to keep the lander alive a little longer, just a little bit longer…

This isn’t a surprise, or a shock, of course. Unlike the Mars Exploration Rovers – which many of us now have come to believe are immortal – Phoenix simply can’t keep going, and going and going like a Duracell bunny. Phoenix feeds on solar energy, and now, with the Sun setting earlier each day, the sky darkening and the temperature plummeting, that energy is starting to get harder and harder to find. Frost is forming on the ground around Phoenix, and on Phoenix herself. She’s getting colder and colder as she stands there, looking out over that endless arctic plain, and now, as her heaters are turned off one by one, an awful, aching, penetrating cold will start to gnaw away at her like a vulture. She’ll slow down, start to get drowsy, and will be able to see, and do, less and less each day. She’ll find it harder to take pictures, even harder to talk to Earth, and will basically start to fail. Which is very sad, but we all knew it was going to happen; we all knew that her landing site up near the martian north pole would be her grave before year’s end, and that every sol past #90 would be a bonus. Today is sol 151, so she’s already lasted two months longer than her design called for her to, so even if she died the very moment you stopped reading this she would have been a remarkable success…

…and yet… and yet…

Oh how we want her to survive a while longer! Greedily, selfishly, we want more wonderful pictures of trenches, the far away horizon and the polygon-embroidered ground around her. We want to see more fantastic footage of clouds scudding across the sky; more close-ups of martian dust grains; more dust devils whirling and whorling across the landscape…

So, hang on in there Phoenix, there’s more to do yet, and a lot more to see, too.