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Hang on in there, Phoenix…

Things seem to be getting quite uncomfortable for Phoenix now… barely a day after it was announced that parts of the lander were going to be turned off to save energy, in the hope of helping her to survive a little longer in the frigid martian arctic, JPL put out a press release announcing that the probe had put itself into “Safe mode”…

As Emily Lakdawalla explains on her blog for The Planetary Society:

The Phoenix mission just issued a statement announcing that, in response to a “low power fault,” the spacecraft went into safe mode yesterday. This much was actually expected to happen because of the instructions sent yesterday to the spacecraft to turn off the heater that once kept the robotic arm and TEGA instruments warm. However, the spacecraft evidently surprised mission control by taking more self-protective activities than were anticipated, switching unexpectedly to the “B” side of its electronics. It also shut down one of its two batteries.

That doesn’t sound good, but Phoenix is a hardy spacecraft, and it’s obvious that her controllers are doing absolutely everything they can to squeeze every last breath out of her in the remaining sols of her life on Mars. The hope is that she might last out until the end of November, but any operations beyond that seem very, very unlikely.

So… Pheonix is definitely winding down now. Like the famous bird from myth and legend she arrived on Mars trailing furious fire and flame, hurtling through Barsoom’s thin atmosphere like a man-made meteor, before landing with a final pulse of fire. For five months her light has burned brightly on Mars, but now that light is fading. Her once tall flames are now sputtering and guttering, and now, after 153 sols on Mars – and remember the hope was for 90 or so – her robot arm has been parked for good, leaving its scoop touching the cold, dusty ground, almost as if Phoenix is now so weary and so cold that she’s laid down her head to rest. That’s a pretty sad image, I think… 😦

When will Phoenix actually breath her last? We’ve no way of knowing, but her life is almost certainly now in sols rather than months. Many space enthusiasts – who have been following the mission faithfully ever since it landed (in many cases ever since the lander was being built) – are already very upset about the imminent death of Phoenix, and I expected to be too… but… well…

I know this might sound strange – almost heretical – coming from one of the internet’s most unashamedly romantic machine huggers, but I’m not feeling so distraught over Phoenix’s demise. I read the initial report about the heaters being switched off and although I knew it represented the beginning of the end I couldn’t help thinking “Well, fair enough…” I think maybe it’s because, from the very start, it was made clear by the Phoenix team that she would almost certainly not survive to Christmas, it would just get too cold, too dark, too hostile for her to keep going. Or maybe it’s because there’s not a lot more science she can actually do now, not with power levels so low and all her ovens full or broken…

I don’t know. But in my mind Phoenix – unlike our seemingly immortal, Too Stubborn To Die rovers – has always been a butterfly: a delicate creature of elegant beauty that emerged from an ugly chrysalis, but was destined from the start to live a short, exciting life before fading away and dying.

I’ll miss her when she’s gone, too, but I’ll always look back on her – and our – brief stay in Barsoom’s arctic and smile.

Hang on in there Phoenix. There’s still more work to do – more sunsets to bask in, more dust devils to laugh at, more frost to photograph – before you finally sleep…

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2 Responses

  1. I also feel sorry for Phoenix, there`s a piece of me over there, being frozen into time. Frozen but not dead!

  2. There was some talk of attempting to communicate with Phoenix again next spring (Martian northern hemisphere, presumably well into the NH summer or autumn on Earth). That’s a long shot but have you any idea how long? How likely are the electronics and batteries to be permanently damaged by the cold? for that matter, how cold will it get?

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