Monday, January 18, 2010

Will the Phoenix Rise from the Martian Winter?

Caption: This mosaic assembled from Phoenix images shows the spacecraft's three landing legs and patches of water ice exposed by the landing thrusters. Splotches of Martian material on the landing leg strut at left could be liquid saline-water. Larger version on .Credit: Kenneth Kremer, Marco Di Lorenzo, NASA/JPL/UA/Max Planck Institute and

Many Mars scientists believe that the arctic region may be the best place to look for evidence of current life on Mars. Indeed many Phoenix scientists have concluded that the Phoenix landing site is the “most habitable” of any thus far visited by human robotic explorers.

If the miraculous happens and contact is unexpectedly re-established with NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander, science could flow almost instantly if the ships vital operating systems are healthy. Indeed a science plan could be swiftly put in place after determining the condition of the lander, says Doug McCuiston, director of Mars Exploration at NASA Headquarters. McCuiston explained to me in an interview that the initial science would be “a surface change and atmospheric imaging campaign that could begin nearly immediately. In that instance, if the cameras are operable it is easy to begin an imaging campaign with real-time planning”.

A robust and wide ranging science agenda far beyond pictures could theoretically be implemented if Phoenix does amazingly survive and the pre-programmed Lazarus mode kicks in and she re-awakens with a functional arm. The goal would be to restart the assessment of habitability in the martian arctic where humanity in the form of a robotic surrogate first touched water beyond earth

In fact, no one on the team really expects Phoenix to revive following the exceedingly harsh winter weather she has had to endure since falling silent more than one year ago on November 2, 2008. “Keep in mind, we think the chances are very low that it survived [martian] winter,” McCuiston emphasized to me. “NASA hardware has never been exposed to this type of environment on Mars”.

NASA has two spacecraft currently circling Mars in near polar orbit which will be actively searching for Phoenix, named Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). “We actually listen for it, not try to contact it because of the operational mode it will come up in (if it does at all)”, explained McCuiston. “Odyssey is slated to be the prime communications spacecraft”. The listening campaign with Odyssey begins on January 18 with 10+ overflights per day for three consecutive days, each of which has about a 10 minute window of opportunity, and will continue into February and March. “MRO will search on an as-available basis, depending on what else it’s doing, since its primary role is MSL landing site work. Mars Express [from ESA] is not involved”.

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