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Close-up of a Martian valley

Chasma Boreale on Mars

A side-on view of the Chasma Boreale valley in Mars' northern ice cap.

CHASMA BOREALE IS A LONG, flat-floored valley that cuts deep into Mars’ north polar icecap. Its walls rise about 1,400 metres above the floor.

Where the edge of the ice cap has retreated, sheets of sand are emerging that accumulated during earlier ice-free climatic cycles. Winds blowing off the ice have pushed loose sand into dunes and driven them down-canyon in a westward direction.

This scene combines images taken during the period from December 2002 to February 2005 by the Thermal Emission Imaging System instrument on NASA’s Mars Odyssey. It has been released as part of a special series of images marking the orbiter as the longest-working Mars spacecraft in history.

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Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU.

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Mars lander doesn’t phone home

Two images of the Phoenix Mars lander taken from Martian orbit in 2008 and 2010

Two images of the Phoenix Mars lander taken from Martian orbit in 2008 and 2010. The 2008 lander image shows two relatively blue spots on either side corresponding to the spacecraft's clean circular solar panels. In the 2010 image scientists see a dark shadow that could be the lander body and eastern solar panel, but no shadow from the western solar panel.

  • No contact with Phoenix Mars Lander
  • Completed its mission in 2008
  • Solar panels appeared damaged from ice

NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander has ended operations after repeated attempts to contact the spacecraft were unsuccessful. And new image transmitted by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) shows signs of severe ice damage to the lander’s solar panels.

“The Phoenix spacecraft succeeded in its investigations and exceeded its planned lifetime,” said Fuk Li, manager of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Although its work is finished, analysis of information from Phoenix’s science activities will continue for some time to come.”

Last week, NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter flew over the Phoenix 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.

Earth-based research continues on discoveries that Phoenix made during summer conditions at the far-northern site where it landed May 25, 2008. The solar-powered lander completed its three-month mission and kept working until sunlight waned two months later.

Phoenix was not designed to survive the dark, cold, icy winter. However, the slim possibility that Phoenix survived could not be eliminated without listening for the lander after abundant sunshine returned.

A view of one of Mars Phoenix Lander's two circular solar panels.

A view of one of Mars Phoenix Lander's two circular solar panels. Scientists think winter ice might have broken one of the panels.

Ice damage

The MRO image of Phoenix taken this month by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, camera on board the spacecraft suggests the lander no longer casts shadows the way it did during its working lifetime.

“Before and after images are dramatically different,” said Michael Mellon of the University of Colorado in Boulder, a science team member for both Phoenix and HiRISE.

“The lander looks smaller, and only a portion of the difference can be explained by accumulation of dust on the lander, which makes its surfaces less distinguishable from surrounding ground.”

Apparent changes in the shadows cast by the lander are consistent with predictions of how Phoenix could be damaged by harsh winter conditions. It was anticipated that the weight of a carbon-dioxide ice build-up could bend or break the lander’s solar panels. Mellon calculated hundreds of kilograms of ice probably coated the lander in mid-winter.

A view of the Phoenix Mars Lander's arm and scoop

A view of the Phoenix Mars Lander's arm and scoop, with a solar panel in the foreground.

Interesting chemistry

During its mission, Phoenix confirmed and examined patches of the widespread deposits of underground water ice detected by Odyssey and identified a mineral called calcium carbonate that suggested occasional presence of thawed water.

The lander also found soil chemistry with significant implications for life, and observed falling snow.

The mission’s biggest surprise was the discovery of perchlorate, an oxidizing chemical on Earth that is food for some microbes and potentially toxic for others.

“We found that the soil above the ice can act like a sponge, with perchlorate scavenging water from the atmosphere and holding on to it,” said Peter Smith, Phoenix principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

“You can have a thin film layer of water capable of being a habitable environment. A micro-world at the scale of grains of soil—that’s where the action is.”

The perchlorate results are shaping subsequent astrobiology research, as scientists investigate the implications of its antifreeze properties and potential use as an energy source by microbes. Discovery of the ice in the uppermost soil by Odyssey pointed the way for Phoenix.

Artist's impression of the MRO spacecraft in orbit around Mars

Artist's impression of the MRO spacecraft in orbit around Mars.

Ice deposits

More recently, the MRO detected numerous ice deposits in middle latitudes at greater depth using radar and exposed on the surface by fresh impact craters.

“Ice-rich environments are an even bigger part of the planet than we thought,” Smith said. “Somewhere in that vast region there are going to be places that are more habitable than others.”

NASA’s MRO reached the planet in 2006 to begin a two-year primary science mission. Its data show Mars had diverse wet environments at many locations for differing durations during the planet’s history, and climate-change cycles persist into the present era.

The mission has returned more planetary data than all other Mars missions combined.

Odyssey has been orbiting Mars since 2001. The mission also has played important roles by supporting the twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona / Texas A&M University.

Last call for Mars Phoenix

Artist concept of Mars Odyssey spacecraft

NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft is listening for signals from the Phoenix Mars Lander on the Red Planet's surface.

  • Will listen for signals from Mars lander
  • Mars Phoenix lasted three months
  • Expected to not survive the winter

From May 17 to 21, NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter will conduct a fourth and final campaign to check on whether the Phoenix Mars Lander has come back to life.

During that period, Odyssey will listen for a signal from Phoenix during 61 flights over the lander’s site on far-northern Mars. The orbiter detected no transmission from the lander in earlier campaigns totalling 150 overflights in January, February and April.

Artist's impression of the Phoenix Mars Lander on the surface of Mars.

Artist's impression of the Phoenix Mars Lander on the surface of Mars.

In 2008, Phoenix completed its three-month mission studying Martian ice, soil and atmosphere. The lander worked for five months before reduced sunlight caused energy to become insufficient to keep the lander functioning. The solar-powered robot was not designed to survive through the dark and cold conditions of a Martian arctic winter.

However, in case it did, NASA has used Odyssey to listen for the signals that Phoenix would transmit if abundant spring sunshine revived the lander.

Northern Mars experienced its maximum-sunshine day, the summer solstice, on May 12  (US eastern time) so the Sun will be higher in the sky above Phoenix during the fourth listening campaign than during any of the prior ones. Still, expectations of hearing from the lander remain low.

“To be thorough, we decided to conduct this final session around the time of the summer solstice, during the best thermal and power conditions for Phoenix,” said Chad Edwards, chief telecommunications engineer for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL.