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Snow-discovering spacecraft finally bites the Martian dust

Snow-discovering spacecraft finally bites the Martian dust

The Phoenix is dead and this time it won’t rise again.

On May 24, NASA released photos of the Mars Phoenix lander that finally ended even the faintest hope that the York-designed weather instruments on board the spacecraft would come to life again. The photos show that the lander’s solar panels appear to have collapsed due to the weight of a thick layer of frost, robbing it of power it needs to communicate – if its physical components were not already cracked and broken by the extreme cold.

York University's Mars Phoenix teamLeft: Members of the York Phoenix team nervously await the first results from Mars on May 28, 2008

Although none of the Phoenix team at York held out much hope for Phoenix’s survival, the news from NASA made it official. The team will be toasting both the project’s success and the lander’s demise tonight at the Space Science Symposium: Reflections on Canada’s Past and Future Achievements in Space Science, being held to honour the 50-year career of Gordon Shepherd, Distinguished Research Professor in York’s Department of Earth & Space Science & Engineering.

“We will be celebrating the accomplishment and the fact that it’s finally over,” said York Professor Jim Whiteway, principal investigator for the Canadian portion of the Phoenix project, which was led by the University of Arizona and NASA.

The Phoenix touched down on the Red Planet two years ago and provided the world with the stunning revelation that it snows on Mars (see YFile, Oct. 1, 2008). But the lander, whose meteorology instruments were designed by Whiteway and his team from York’s Centre for Research in Earth & Space Science (CRESS) in the Faculty of Science & Engineering (FSE), was never designed to withstand a Martian winter. “We stopped hoping it would respond in March,” said Whiteway. “We never did make any plans – it wasn’t designed to survive the winter.”

NASA issued a story and photos (right) taken by the Mars Odyssey orbiter (see Phoenix mission page), which flew over the landing site 61 times during a final attempt to communicate with the lander. No transmission from the lander was detected. Phoenix also did not communicate during 150 flights in three earlier listening campaigns this year.

Since the work of the mission ended with the onset of the Martian winter in November 2008, Whiteway and his team have published 15 papers in international journals reporting new knowledge that has changed our understanding of the climate and the hydrological cycle on Mars. These results are now informing a new generation of computer models being used to study the climate on Mars. “They are simple observations and would be quite pedestrian on earth,” Whiteway said, “but they are quite something else on a different planet.”

Alan Carswell, chair of the board at Optech, professor emeritus at York and developer of the lidar technology, said it was fitting that the Space Seminar, where he is also speaking, is being held on the very day two years ago that the York team received the first results from Phoenix’s MET package. It was a few days later that the instrument confirmed that it snows on Mars. “That was a pure lidar observation – without it the snow wouldn’t have been detected,” Carswell said. “The fact that it was our lidar that allowed it to be seen was really quite reassuring and satisfying.”

 A view of one of Phoenix's solar panels after the landing on Mars

With the project reports all but complete, the York team is now focusing on new proposals for missions to map asteroids and moons using the lidar technology that was a key component of the Phoenix’s MET package. These projects are being led by York Professor Michael Daly, a former staff member at MDA Space Missions who was the chief engineer for the Phoenix MET project and then joined FSE as a professor in January.

Phoenix’s meteorological component was a collaboration led by York University, in partnership with the University of Alberta, Dalhousie University, the University of Aarhus (Denmark), the Finnish Meteorological Institute, MDA Space Missions and Optech Inc., with $37 million in funding from the Canadian Space Agency. The mission was a joint project of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories and the University of Arizona.

For more information on the science results of the mission and links to more stories about Phoenix, see YFile, July 6, 2009.

By David Fuller, contributing YFile writer.

Republished courtesy of YFile.