Liquid Water on Mars?

Water droplets appear to be growing on Phoenix's leg shortly after landing on Mars (NASA)
Water droplets appear to be growing on Phoenix’s leg shortly after landing on Mars (NASA)

NASA scientists are currently trying to understand a set of images taken by the Phoenix Mars Lander shortly after it landed on the Red Planet in May 2008. The images in question show one of the robot’s legs covered in what appears to be droplets of liquid water. The droplets remain on the lander for some time, appearing to get larger and changing shape.

By now, we know that liquid water (apparently) hasn’t existed on the Martian surface for hundreds of millions of years; the atmosphere is currently too thin and too cold to support liquid water. However, the confirmed presence of perchlorate in the regolith may provide an important clue as to what might be going on…
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Frosty Phoenix Not Snowed Under… Yet.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE instrument spots the dead Phoenix Lander on December 21st (NASA/HiRISE)
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE instrument spots the dead Phoenix Lander on December 21st (NASA/HiRISE)

NASA lost contact with the Phoenix Mars Lander at the start of November 2008, as its batteries were drained and sunlight began to dwindle. With no sunlight came no charge for the batteries from Phoenix’s solar panels, and the robot’s fate was sealed: a sun-deprived coma. A dust storm hastened the lander’s fate, but it certainly wasn’t premature. The Phoenix mission was intended to last three months, but in the same vein as the Mars Exploration Rovers, Phoenix’s mission was extended. In the high latitude location of the Martian Arctic, a dark winter was fast approaching, so Phoenix didn’t have the luxury of time and it transmitted its last broken signal before the cold set in, sapping the last volt of electricity from its circuits…

Although there was some excitement about the possibility of reviving the lander next summer, it is highly unlikely Phoenix will be in an operational state, even if it did have an abundant source of light to heat up its solar panels once more. No, Phoenix is dead.

However, that doesn’t mean the orbiting satellites won’t be looking out for it. So long as there is a little bit of light bouncing off the frosted Martian surface, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter can image Phoenix, keeping track of the encroaching ice around its location. The HiRISE team seem to be assembling a series of images throughout the change in seasons at the landing site, so it will be interesting to see the full set…

Source: HiRISE blog

The Search For Life, What’s the Point?

Another mission, another brave “search for life”…

Is it me, or does virtually every robotic foray into space have some ET-searching component attached? In the case of Mars exploration, every lander and rover’s prime directive is find life, evidence of past life, potential for life or the building blocks of life. Even the very first man-made artefact to land (crash) on the planet, the 1971 Soviet Mars 2 mission, was designed to find organic compounds and… any sign of life.

On writing an article yesterday (“Wasteful” Sample Storage Box Removed from Mars Science Laboratory), I started to think that we might just be trying a little too hard and spending too much money on this endeavour. Perhaps there’s another way for us to work out if we are, indeed, an interplanetary (possibly intergalactic?) oasis, or a component of a biological cosmic zoo…
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Sci-Fi Space Robots: Top Five

Update (Nov 18th): OK, it looks like this article just hit the front page of Digg. Whilst cool, I’ve made a very quick deduction that people from Digg must not read the text of an article before commenting. Please read the opening paragraph before shouting “OMFG! This guy should really understand what sci-fi means!.” Perhaps the title could be improved (read: “Top 5 Space Robots that Look Like Science Fiction“), but I think all this can be remedied by simply reading the text and not just looking at the pictures. Thanks!

I love science fiction, I always have. In fact, it was the main motivational factor for me to begin to study science in the early 90’s. Although sci-fi is outlandish, futuristic and seemingly impossible, there is actually a high degree of science fact behind the TV shows, movies and video games. So when I was young, sci-fi fuelled my enthusiasm for physics; more specifically, astrophysics.

Many years after these first forays into trying to understand how the Universe really worked, I now find myself drawn to real space missions doing real science only to find the divide between sci-fi and sci-fact is getting smaller and smaller. However, to ignite the imagination and build an enthusiasm for the “futuristic” science being carried out right now, it helps if the robotic embodiment of the satellite, rover, probe or lander looks futuristic itself (possibly even a bit “sci-fi”). This way we not only do great science, but we ignite the imaginations of men, women and children who would have otherwise ignored the science behind space exploration.

So, here are my top five missions to ignite the imagination, past and future…
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Phoenix is Dead, Spirit is Failing

Mars dust is a big problem for technology; it’s very fine, abrasive and sticks to everything. Airborne dust has been blamed for accelerating Phoenix’s death, and the hardy Mars Exploration Rover Spirit looks like it has finally met its match. The critical issue here is a build-up of the red powder over the surface of the energy-collecting solar panels our robotic explorers depend on to power their experiments and movement over the Martian terrain. If solar cells cannot receive light, electricity cannot be generated, hastening the end of of Phoenix, and possibly one of the rover twins…
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Phoenix is Alive! Just in Time for Halloween

Steve the Cat celebrates Halloween on the Phoenix Mars Lander (NASA/
Steve the Cat celebrates Halloween on the Phoenix Mars Lander (NASA/

After an uncertain couple of days, NASA has regained contact with the ailing Mars lander. Yesterday, scientists announced they were having difficulty communicating with Phoenix after the on board electronics were switched into “safe mode” on Tuesday. It seems likely that the robot was switched into this low-energy state due to the increasingly cold weather — plus a Sun-blocking dust storm — triggering a low-power fault.

Although scientists were concerned they may not regain communications with the lander, they were able get in touch with Phoenix late on Thursday during a two hour period when the lander’s electronics were powered up. Now scientists know that Phoenix will automatically reboot itself every 19 hours, and then power up again for two hours to carry out very limited science duties.

NASA was able to transmit commands via NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter which passed overhead during this two-hour period of opportunity. This goes to show how little solar energy is being collected from the meagre sunlight as Mars enters winter (the Sun is very low on the Martian horizon, and it will soon drop out of sight, sealing the fate of Phoenix).

However, before Phoenix succumbs to a low energy coma, NASA is trying to get as many science activities out of it before it is frozen solid.

It also seems fitting that the highly successful NASA mission should come back from the brink of death on Halloween. So, “Happy Halloween Phoenix!” We all hope you last a few more weeks…

Source: AP

Has Phoenix… Died?

Could this be the end of Phoenix? (NASA/JPL)
The end of the line? (NASA/JPL)

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…
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Phoenix Welcomes in Sol 90 and Mars Winter

Phoenix sees the Sun dip below the horizon for the first time in 90 sols. It's going to get pretty cold here on in... (NASA/JPL/UA)
Phoenix sees the Sun dip below the horizon for the first time in 90 sols. It's going to get pretty cold out there... (NASA/JPL/UA)

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…
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Phoenix Descent Captured by HiRISE – A Breathtaking View

The Phoenix lander plus parachute, descending in front of a huge Mars crater (NASA/HiRISE)

Its images like these that restore your faith in mankind’s exploration spirit. After the flawless entry, descent and landing of Phoenix on Sunday night at 16:54 PST (00:54 GMT Monday morning), I took some time to contemplate the enormity of what the amazing team at NASA and the University of Arizona had achieved. I was a bit concerned as to whether the lander would make it through the “7 minutes of terror”, especially when thinking back to the silence that followed the UK’s Beagle 2 landing on Christmas Day, 2003. But it did make it, and with bags of confidence. Then we are flooded with news and images from the Red Planet, but one photo stood out from the rest. A photo, from an orbiting Mars satellite, looking down on Phoenix, floating through the Martian atmosphere, with a 10 km-wide crater as a backdrop. It doesn’t get much better than this…
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