Carbon dioxide frost consigns Phoenix Mars Lander to history

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Washington, May 25 (ANI): NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander has ended operations after carbon dioxide frost damaged the spacecraft's solar panels.

Repeated attempts to contact the spacecraft were unsuccessful and a new image transmitted by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, or MRO, shows signs of severe ice damage to the lander's solar panels.

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

"The latest HiRISE image appears to show that a solar panel of the Phoenix lander has collapsed," said University of Arizona planetary scientist Alfred McEwen, who is the principal investigator of the HiRISE camera project.

According to McEwen, it gets so cold during the Marian winter that carbon dioxide, which accounts for 95 percent of the planet's atmosphere, forms a frost blanket up to one or more feet thick that covers the entire northern landscape each winter, including any spacecraft that might be on the surface.

"The Mars Lander's solar panels were not designed to withstand significant loads of such carbon dioxide frost," said McEwen.

Last week, NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter flew over the Phoenix landing site 61 times during a final attempt to communicate with the lander, but 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 Phoenix made during summer conditions at the far-northern Mars 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.

But, scientists have said that the slim possibility that Phoenix survived could not be eliminated without listening for the lander after abundant sunshine returned.

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

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 buildup could bend or break the lander's solar panels.

"The Phoenix spacecraft succeeded in its investigations and exceeded its planned lifetime. Although its work is finished, analysis of information from Phoenix's science activities will continue for many years to come," said Fuk Li, manager of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. (ANI)

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