Two years ago today I was sat here at this very computer, nervously awaiting the safe landing of the Phoenix probe near the north pole of Mars. Thankfully the landing went well, and for the next 5 months I followed the mission closely, checking for new images every day, turning many of those images into colourised versions and even 3D views. You can find my coverage of the Phoenix mission here.
Phoenix went into a kind of hibernation five months after landing on Mars, as the martian winter closed in on the little spaceprobe and soon began to chill it to its core. We were pretty clear on what would happen next – ice would creep towards and then cover the lander, putting extreme pressure on its structure and delicate electronics, especially its fragile solar panels. When it went to sleep most people believed that was it, that it wouldn’t survive until Spring’s thaws, but some dared to believe that maybe, just maybe, Phoenix would survive, and, eventually, phone home to let NASA and all its followers around the world know that it had prevailed after all…
We now know that’s not going to happen.
NASA listened out for a signal from Phoenix many, many times over the past couple of months, but heard nothing, and we now know why: sometime during the brutal martian polar winter, Phoenix perished. New images taken by the HiRISE camera onboard the MRO probe suggest that one of those solar panels broke off sometime during the winter, thanks to the weight of ice that had formed upon it. Look at these “Before” and “After” images and you’ll see the difference for yourself…
Where there should be a round solar panel on the left, there’s just a gap, and the ground beneath. What we’re propbably looking at there are the tinkling, twinkling, shattered pieces of the circular solar array, dropped to the ground and covered in dust.
There’ll be no return from the dead for Phoenix. Her mission is over.
Phoenix’s five month’s of martian exploration was a fascinating, exciting, frustrating time. The story of her time on Mars is a story of ice discovered, clouds spotted, winds felt and stunning photographs taken. It’s also a story of failed ovens, and wasted dirt samples. But at the end of the sol, Phoenix’s mission was a triumph – she sent back images of beautiful bright ice flakes, scraped out from beneath the surface of Mars, and told us that her landing site could, possibly, perhaps, maybe, once, have been more friendly towards life.
So, farewell Phoenix, you showed us Mars as we’d never seen it before. Sleep now, you deserve your rest.
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