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Farewell Phoenix…


So. It’s official – the historic Phoenix mission to the north pole of Mars is over. There has been no word from Phoenix since around Nov 2nd, and with temperatures dropping, darkness descending and Phoenix showing no signs of “phoning home”, NASA has declared the mission complete, and has said they don’t expect to hear from the lander again; even the most optimistic cvommentators and space enthusiasts have to admit that there seems very little chance that the “lazarus” command signal could wake the lander up again in spring, because by then the terrible cold will have caused serious damage to its systems and circuitry, literally cracking and shattering its circuit boards and computer hardware, so we have heard our last from Phoenix.

Obviously this isn’t a surprise – Phoenix was doomed to die in a matter of months from the very second it landed – but it has happened slightly sooner than was hoped and even expected. On Sol 151 – the lander’s 151st day on Mars – she was still managing to send back images. This is the last one she sent back on that day… the last image taken by Phoenix on Mars…


At that time many people – including myself – thought that Phoenix might survive for another week or maybe even two, and we were looking forward to some more images from the lander. Optimistically we looked forward to seeing at least a couple more images of frost on the ground around the lander, and maybe even some frost glinting on the lander’s own deck. Maybe even, we wondered, some of that now-famous snow settling onto the lander in a flurry of tiny pink snowflakes…

But Mars had other ideas. Mars, as we all know, takes a perverse delight in killing spacecraft sent there to uncover its secrets, and it has tried many times over the past five years to kill the Mars Exploration Rovers but failed (although it’s having a really good go right now at killing Spirit – see later in this post for details). Finally, last week, Mars decided enough was enough, Phoenix had outstayed its welcome on her northern plains, and the Red Planet threw a lethal dust storm at the terminally ill lander, reducing its already meagre power supply even further.

I’m sure that if the lander could have spoken it would have sighed “Oh come ON! Give me a break!”. Phoenix had already entered a sleep-wake-sleep cycle, its batteries draining each night only to be topped up a little less effectively the next day, just enough to let it phone home briefly. Now, as the sky above it darkened and its ravenous solar panels and systems were starved of precious sunlight, it was fighting a losing battle. Eventually, on Nov 2nd, the shivering, power-starved lander just stopped talking to Earth, almost as if it had crawled into a sleeping bag in its tent and surrendered itself to death, like a lost polar explorer with no hope of rescue. Various orbiters flew overhead again and again, listening for signals, for the faintest, most plaintive beep, but heard nothing, and finally the Phoenix team had to admit defeat.

The flames of the Phoenix, which had lit up the northern plains of Mars like a beacon for five wonderful months, had finally been extinguished. There would be no more pictures of dust devils whirling and whorling across the landscape; no more portraits of rocks and hollows covered with a fine coating of frost; no more animations of alien sunsets or sunrises; no more footage of the telltale thrupping dementedly from side to side, or of clouds scudding across the sky; no more close-ups of ice beneath the lander’s belly…

Not only had the Fat Lady sung, she’d left the stage, the lights had been turned off and the doors had been locked. Phoenix was dead.

And you know, even though it was “just” an exquisitely-manufactured and engineered collection of metal parts, glass lenses and silicon panels, I feel very, very sad that she’s gone. This is the first working, succesful spaceprobe I’ve felt close to that I’ve “lost”. The Vikings were before my time, really, and although I was so looking forward to ollowing Beagle 2’s adventure on Mars, that never happened because it almost certainly turned itself into a spray of thousands of tinkling, twinkly pieces when it slammed into Mars. No, Phoenix is the first major space mission that I have followed from conception to end-of-mission, and yes, losing her hurts. Which many people will find odd, I know, at a time when the world is standing on the edge of a financial abyss, terrorist nutters seem determined to splash as much blood across streets and walls as possible and there are people dying of hunger all over the world, but we can’t cast our eyes down at the ground ALL the time, we have to look up from the pavement and gaze up at the stars some time! If we don’t reach out for what’s Out There then what we have Here means less. If we give up on acquiring knowledge then we will stagnate and wallow in our own filth. We should rejoice in the achievements of space missions like Phoenix, for they represent what’s best about us. They show us that for all our faults, for all our weaknesses, we are capable of great things, remarkable things.

I will never – even if I live to be a thousand years old – forget the excitement, drama and sheer terror of Phoenix’s landing, when literally tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people followed its arrival on Mars live over the internet, superstitiously crunching peanuts (even if we hated them!) and eyes darting to and from the clock as we lived every fist-in-mouth tense moment of its Entry, Descent and Landing. The celebrations when it touched down safely were intense and magical, and the celebrations when its first images came back even more so. Then, for the next five months, Phoenix was part of my world, my day to day life. I checked the Phoenix websites for new images every morning before I went to work; I made my own colour pictures from its black and white raw images, and posted them in my own online gallery, and on the popular forum unmannedspaceflight.com too. I marvelled at the sights Phoenix saw, sol after sol after sol. All the time I knew it wouldn’t – couldn’t – last forever, that Phoenix’s life had started to ebb away the very second her footpads touched the rocky ground, but even as I cursed her dodgy TEGA oven doors and shouted abuse at the martian soil heaped up uselessly on the ovens’ grilles, her death seemed so, so far away…

But now she’s gone, and yes, it’s quite upsetting. In all honesty it’s not as upsetting as the death of one of my beloved Mars Exploration Rovers would (and will) be, because I’ve walked beside them, virtually, for five YEARs not five months, and also because Phoenix was a mission with a well known timeline. But still, there’s a very definite sense of loss today, not just for me but for many people in the space exploration community, and the world will seem just a little duller, a little less exciting with no Phoenix in it.

But this isn’t the end of the story. Far from it. Phoenix will live on, in her data. Now, with the lander itself dead, the Phoenix scientists will really start to analyse all the science the lander returned during her 5 months on Mars. There will be no more images to drool over, true, but there will be results: more announcements will be made, more press conferences will be held, more discoveries will  be announced. Like what? Well, perhaps there’s proof hiding in the data somewhere that Phoenix did actually find organics in the martian soil… or maybe there’s evidence that the landing site was indeed once habitable. We’ll have to wait and see – and that’s what science, especially planetary science, is all about: waiting and seeing.

And talking of “seeing”, we’ll see Phoenix again, that’s for sure, because the incredible HiRISE camera carried by the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter is going to be turned on the lander again and again over the next few months, allowing us to see the frost and snow creeping towards and then covering her. We might actually see the lander’s solar wings drop off and fall to the ground. We might even see the lander vanish beneath a slow motion tsunami of ice, covered by a blanket of white, not to appear again until the thaws of spring… again, we’ll have to wait and see.

Then one day, in the far future, visitors from Earth – the first astronauts to fly or more likely drive up to the north polar wastes – will arrive at Green Valley, Phoenix’s landing site, and, bouncing and bounding like kangaroos in the low gravity, carefully make their way across the rocky ground over to the lander, or what’s left of it after all those years, and reaching out with their gloved hands they’ll respectfully and even lovingly touch its rusted metal and cracked glass, remembering the stories they’ve been told by their parents back on Earth about how the lander was the first to reach out and touch martian ice…

And decades, perhaps centuries beyond that, Phoenix will have a new home – a display stand or case in a shining martian museum, where all the many spaceprobes sent to Mars are collected and seen by native-born martians and scientists – and even tourists – from Earth alike. Illuminated by spotlights, and standing on a perfect rproduction of her landing site, Phoenix will gleam as brightly as she did the day she left Earth, and everyone who gazes at her will marvel at how such a spindly looking creation could have achieved so much, and been so loved by so many people. I have no doubt about that at all. Just as I have no doubt that visitors to that museum will be able to sit down at a computer terninal (or whatever they have then) and browse the contents of the disc that Phoenix carried to Mars. They’ll play tracks of music and see images stored on it, and scan down the long, long list of names etched on it, searching for the names of their own parents or grandparents who Sent Their Name To Mars by filling in details on an old-fashioned “website”…

My name is on that disc. I wonder how many wide-eyed martians will read it as they look at that list in centuries to come… 

Phoenix was special in many ways. It sent back 25,000 stunning pictures. It probed the martian atmosphere with a laser beam. It reached out for and touched martian ice. One way it was very special was in the way it grabbed the media’s and the public’s imagination, and this was due in no small part to the magnificent Outreach effort by the Phoenix team, which covered every aspect and stage of the mission on its webpages, and also by the tireless work of JPL’s Veronica McGregor, who “Twittered” the mission to the delight of almost 40,000 followers, posting short, snappy and often humourous personal messages ‘from’ the lander. The lander became a genuine internet star because of its Twitterings, and as the end approached the lander’s messages became more and more poignant and… well… human. It was easy to imagine the lander was a living, breathing thing, writing farewell messages home…

When the writing really was on the wall, “Phoenix” wrote a farewell message to its followers on another popular website, which… well, I was going to just post a link to it here, but I want to be absolutely sure you read it, so here it is, reproduced in full:

If you are reading this, then my mission is probably over.

This final entry is one that I asked be posted after my mission team announces they’ve lost contact with me. Today is that day and I must say good-bye, but I do it in triumph and not in grief.

As I’ve said before, there’s no other place I’d rather be than here. My mission lasted five months instead of three, and I’m content knowing that I worked hard and accomplished great things during that time. My work here is done, but I leave behind a legacy of images and data.

In that sense, you haven’t heard the end of me. Scientists will be releasing findings based on my data for months, possibly years, to come and today’s children will read of my discoveries in their textbooks. Engineers will use my experience during landing and surface operations to aid in designing future robotic missions.

But for now, it’s time for me to hunker down and brave what will be a long and cold autumn and winter. Temperatures should reach -199F (-128C) and a polar cap of carbon dioxide ice will envelop me in an icy tomb.

Seasons on Mars last about twice as long as seasons on Earth, so if you’re wondering when the next Martian spring in the northern hemisphere begins, it’s one Earth-year away—October 27, 2009. The next Martian summer solstice, when maximum sunlight would hit my solar arrays, falls on May 13, 2010.

That’s a long time away. And it’s one of the reasons there isn’t much hope that I’ll ever contact home again.

For my mission teams on Earth, I bid a special farewell and thank you. For the thousands of you who joined me on this journey with your correspondence, I will miss you dearly. I hope you’ll look to my kindred robotic explorers as they seek to further humankind’s quest to learn and understand our place in the universe. The rovers, Spirit and Opportunity (@MarsRovers), are still operating in their sun belt locations closer to the Martian equator; Cassini (@CassiniSaturn) is sailing around Saturn and its rings; and the Mars Science Laboratory (@MarsScienceLab)—the biggest rover ever built for launch to another planet—is being carefully pieced together for launch next year.

My mission team has promised to update my Twitter feed as more of my science discoveries are announced. If I’m lucky, perhaps one of the orbiters will snap a photo of me when spring comes around.

So long Earth. I’ll be here to greet the next explorers to arrive, be they robot or human.

 Now if that doesn’t put a lump in your throat then nothing will. 😉

This isn’t my last post on Phoenix, not by a long way. But for now, I’ll wrap this farewell up by asking you to click on the image I’ve put at the top of this post so you bring up the full size version. Do that and you’ll see a line of what looks like binary code at the bottom there… That’s there because it’s the last “message” sent back by Phoenix via that incredibly popular Twitter site. What does it say? Well, if you put it into a binary translation website you get a single word:


Aye. Phoenix certainly did that.

So, Farewell Phoenix. We’ll miss you, but we won’t forget you! -)


Meanwhile, at lower martian latitudes, the rover Spirit is having a really tough time, and it’s another of those pesky Sun-hiding dust storms that’s responsible. As I write this Spirit’s power levels are dropping faster than a boulder thrown off a cliff, and there are very real concerns that she might “do a Phoenix” and put herself to sleep to conserve energy and save her life. The MER team and spaceflight enthusiasts alike are following this situation very closely, and crossing their fingers, toes and everything else that Mars doesn’t murder two spacecraft in the same week. But Spirit is a tough gal, and she’s survived everything Mars has thrown at her so far, so with a little – more! – luck she’ll come through this latest trial, too…

Good luck Spirit! Hang in there, little rover…

One Response

  1. […] Farewell Phoenix by a fan (Cumbrian Sky Blog, Stuart Atkinson) __________________ 0 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 1 0 0 1 0 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 0 1 1 0 0 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 1 0 0 1 0 1 1 0 0 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 0 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 1 0 0 1 0 1 1 0 … […]

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