Late on Tuesday, NASA’s Phoenix Mars lander entered “safe mode.”
Before this, NASA scientists were working to conserve power by shutting down non-critical systems. By powering down instrumentation such as the heaters that warm Phoenix’s robotic arm, valuable energy was hoped to be saved, perhaps giving the lander some extra time to carry out its final experiments before complete loss of sunlight as Mars’ northern hemisphere enters winter. But it seems that a possible dust storm and the falling temperatures (down to -96°C) may have caused a low-power fault, triggering the precautionary safe-mode.
Although scientists were optimistic about communicating with its on board systems, to send commands to bring Phoenix back online, it seems time (and energy) has run out… Continue reading “Has Phoenix… Died?”
Imagine: You have been selected as one of the first six people to go to Mars and your sole mission is to set up a manned outpost on the Red Planet. Forget the science, forget the long-term goal to spread humanity amongst the planets, your one and only task is to survive. If you live long enough to put your boot print in the Martian regolith, or long enough to eat your first meal, sleep to see your second sol or celebrate your proto-colony’s first home cooked meal, it’s a bonus. You have to survive long enough to give mankind a foothold to begin living on Mars.
Assuming you and your five crew have set up camp. You’ve landed next to all the basic supplies you’ll need for the next few years, plus the equipment to build a sustainable settlement. The pressure of making it through the first day is off. You have a routine, and everyone appears to be doing well. How will you fill your time? No doubt simply living will fill all your waking hours, but humans being humans, you’ll want to make your experience unique, you’ll want to have some fun. Whether it’s taking some time to think about Earth and your family, or it’s taking a hike up the nearest mesa to claim the early Mars World Record of “climbing the highest, ever.”
The next NASA rover mission to the Red Planet will be the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) set for a 2009 launch. This mission will incorporate the biggest rover ever to be sent to the Martian surface, the MSL is the size of a small car and it will carry out a vast number of experiments in the hope of finding evidence for life (again).* This ambitious mission has a big price tag of $1.9 billion, so NASA will want to avoid any chance of “doing a Beagle” and ripping Mars a new impact crater.**
So, with this unprecedented mission comes an unprecedented way of lowering it to the Martian surface. Sure, you have your obligatory drogue parachute, you even have a few rocket bursts to soften the touch-down (along the lines of this year’s Phoenix powered landing), but the MSL will also have a “sky crane” to help it out (in a not-so-dissimilar way to the lowering of the descending Mars Exploration Rovers in 2004, only more awesome).
To be honest, I’m as enthusiastic about this plan as I was when I found out that Phoenix would use a jetpack after freefalling the height of two Empire State Buildings (i.e. “are you mad??“)… but then again, what would I know? It looks like the powered landing worked out pretty well for Phoenix… Continue reading “Mars Science Laboratory Sky Crane: Cool or Crazy?”
This stunning image was taken by Phoenix on the 90th sol (Mars day) – or August 25th here on Earth – of its mission to the Red Planet. Until now the Sun has remained in the sky continuously due to the Mars Arctic summer, perfect for the landers solar panels to receive 24-hour solar energy. Sol 90 marks colder days and less sunlight for Phoenix as we push into Mars winter… Continue reading “Phoenix Welcomes in Sol 90 and Mars Winter”
Preparations for the European ExoMars mission appear to be in full swing for a 2013 launch to the Red Planet. This will be a huge mission for ESA as they have yet to control a robot on another planet. Yes, us Europeans had control of the Huygens probe that drifted through the atmosphere of Titan (and had a few minutes to feel what it was like to sit on another planet before Huygens slipped into robot heaven), but it’s been NASA who has made all the strides in robotic roving technology. Although Russia gave the rover thing a blast back in 1971, the roads have been clear for the 1998 Mars Pathfinder Sojourner rover and the current NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers. Spirit and Opportunity are still exploring the planet (regardless of the limping and stiff robotic arms), several years after their warranty expired. But the Exploration Rovers won’t be the most hi-tech robotic buggies to rove the Martian regolith for much longer.
It was a breaking story that held so much promise: Phoenix uncovering something more “provocative” than discovering water in the search for the “potential for life” on Mars. Unfortunately it would seem the source for Aviation Weekly’s report was either inaccurate or overly enthusiastic (unless NASA really is covering something up, but I really doubt it). It turns out that Friday’s news was more of a pre-emptive scramble to get some incomplete science into the public domain. Phoenix had actually found perchlorate in a MECA sample and the mission scientists were trying to find supporting evidence with one of the TEGA ovens. This is was what caused the delay according to NASA; Phoenix HQ did not want to make a public announcement about this potentially toxic substance until they had corroborative data from a second experiment. Sensible really. However, in the aftermath of the weekend’s frenzy that glittered with conspiracy theories and excitement, Phoenix scientists have vented their frustration at having to disclose incomplete science in an announcement forced by a misunderstanding, rumours and allegations of cover-ups… Continue reading “Confirmed! The “Phoenix Affair” Was a Storm in a Teacup”
Oh dear. It’s the possible result that 23% of Astroengine readers (who voted that they wanted Phoenix to find “A strong indicator for the presence of organic compounds” as of August 5th, 3am) did not want to see. According to Phoenix mission control, recent analysis by the MECA instrument on board the lander appears to have discovered something bad hiding in the Martian soil. Perchlorate, a highly oxidizing substance appears to have been detected just under the icy top-layer of the surface, possibly hindering the development of life (certainly the possibility of current life, perhaps past life too). Over the weekend the Internet exploded with reports that we were on the verge of a major discovery, leading to some reports indicating Phoenix had discovered life on the planet (nah, couldn’t happen). However, there were more grounded theories that further evidence for organic compounds may have been found or there was something more compelling than the discovery of water. But no, it looks like the forthcoming press conference (Tuesday, 11am) might have some bad news for us. A chemical that would actually halt the development of life may have been unearthed, possibly hindering the future of manned exploration of the Red Planet… Continue reading “Phoenix Discovery Could be Proof that Life Cannot Thrive on Mars”
So the plot thickens… Ever since the primary source for the “Phoenix Affair” hit the blogosphere, it spread like a rampaging virus (with the help of the Universe Today and Astroengine.com, ehem). In the early hours of this morning, it was Aviation Week who broke the news that they had been in contact with an unnamed source, leading to the implication that Phoenix had discovered something and the NASA team had set off to Washington for an audience with the President’s Science Advisor. Having waited the whole day for a Phoenix/NASA response to this news, I’ve been frustrated with the lack of weekend activity at Mars HQ. That is until now. Right from the robot’s mouth, Phoenix has disputed the White House claims. On the Phoenix Twitter feed, the perky little robot exclaimed: “Reports claiming there was a White House briefing are also untrue and incorrect,” (from MarsPhoenix). Continue reading “Twitter: Phoenix Mars Lander Refutes White House Report”
Today, two of my Phoenix Mars Lander articles hit the front page of Digg knocking Astroengine.com offline intermittently. The reason for the popularity? It would seem that after Aviation Week reported an undisclosed Phoenix team source’s views that an “even bigger” discovery (than the scientific proof of water) was to be announced this month, only after consulting with the US President’s science advisor. Naturally many readers of the articles are suspicious of this move, after all, why consult with government officials after two months of public transparent scientific study? Surely any discovery that supports the Phoenix mission objective to understand whether the Martian landscape could support past, present or future life forms should be discussed after a clear public statement? It would appear that both the TEGA and MECA instruments have been used to derive this new data, so what has Phoenix uncovered? Let’s hope it’s not a storm in a teacup…