Phoenix: The Spirit Never Dies.

Almost 2 years ago the Phoenix Lander, was sent on its way to Mars. The Phoenix’s mission was simple, to search the north pole of Mars for the most fundamental building block we know: water. Just like the Spirit and Opportunity rovers it was only designed with a very short mission time in mind, approximately 125 martian days (sols). After that point the solar panels would not produce enough power for it to continue operations and was instructed to shut itself down until conditions improved.

Phoenix however wasn’t designed to endure the harsh martian winters. The solar panels it has are too small to generate any meaningful charge during the winter and the lander has no way of reorienting itself to maximise the small amount of solar energy it gets. The rovers have a one up on the lander in this regard since they can find a hill at the right angle to maximise their exposure or, in the case of the trapped Spirit, digging its wheels into the soft martian soil. So despite its name it looks unlikely that the Phoenix will rise out of the frigid winter ashes, but that doesn’t stop us from hoping otherwise:

Listen up, all you Phoenix lander fans! Beginning Jan. 18, the Mars Odyssey orbiter will start listening for any signs of life from Phoenix, which has been sitting silently on the frozen arctic region of Mars since its last communication in November 2008. The Phoenix team says hearing any radio transmission from the lander is high improbabl[e], but possible. Never say never….

“We do not expect Phoenix to have survived, and therefore do not expect to hear from it. However, if Phoenix is transmitting, Odyssey will hear it,” said Chad Edwards, chief telecommunications engineer for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “We will perform a sufficient number of Odyssey contact attempts that if we don’t detect a transmission from Phoenix, we can have a high degree of confidence that the lander is not active.”

Odyssey will pass over the Phoenix landing site approximately 10 times each day during three consecutive days of listening this month and two longer listening campaigns in February and March. The listening attempts will continue until after the sun is above the horizon for the full 24.7 hours of the Martian day at the lander’s high-latitude site. During the later attempts in February or March, Odyssey will transmit radio signals that could potentially be heard by Phoenix, as well as passively listening.

From the mission onset I always held a slim, illogical bit of hope that the lander would survive the long martian winter. Mars has a track record for killing the majority of space craft we send at it (the “Mars Curse” has seen 50% of the missions planned for it fail in some way, although the Americans by themselves have a 72% success rate) so the Phoenix lander coming back alive after what is considered to be certain death for it would be one of those moments where impossible odds are overcome. Sure we’ve already got almost all the science we wanted out of the lander, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more useful things we can do with it.

It also brought back another interesting fact about Mars, the number of both active and inactive craft we have on our red neighbour. There’s currently 3 orbiting satellites (Odyssey, Express and the Reconnaissance Orbiter), 2 rovers and a smattering of landers (all inactive unfortunately). Having this much infrastructure on another planet has proved to be a great boon for all missions that go there as the existence of orbiters that can function as communications relays means that we can get more data back to Earth for the same cost. Plus its just plain cool to know we’re capable of such things, and gives me hope that we will one day make Mars our second home (that’s a story for another day!).

So in about a week we’ll start to get an idea of whether or not the Phoenix will rise again. Either way we can still look upon the success of Phoenix with a smile, and should it come around again you can rest assured the scientific community at large will be both surprised and overjoyed.

It’s all a matter of time now.

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