David Kirkpatrick

May 24, 2010

Phoenix Mars Lander, RIP

Like this release hot from the inbox explains, the Phoenix Mars Lander exceeded its planned useful life by a gigantic margin.

The release:

Phoenix Mars Lander Does Not Phone Home, New Image Shows Damage

PASADENA, Calif., May 24 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander has ended operations after repeated attempts to contact the spacecraft were unsuccessful. A new image transmitted by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) shows signs of severe ice damage to the lander’s solar panels.

(Logo: http://www.newscom.com/cgi-bin/prnh/20081007/38461LOGO)

“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 in Pasadena, Calif. “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 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 Phoenix survived could not be eliminated without listening for the lander after abundant sunshine returned.

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 buildup could bend or break the lander’s solar panels. Mellon calculated hundreds of pounds of ice probably coated the lander in mid-winter.

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 poisonous to other forms of life.

“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. 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. The Phoenix mission was led by Smith at the University of Arizona, with project management at JPL and development partnership at Lockheed Martin in Denver. The University of Arizona operates the HiRISE camera, which was built by Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., in Boulder. Mars missions are managed by JPL for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

For Phoenix information and images, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/phoenix

Photo:  http://www.newscom.com/cgi-bin/prnh/20081007/38461LOGO
PRN Photo Desk photodesk@prnewswire.com
Source: NASA

Web Site:  http://www.nasa.gov/

December 4, 2008

Mars Phoenix Lander coming up Tuesday December 9

Filed under: Media, Science, Technology — Tags: , , , — David Kirkpatrick @ 2:30 pm

The release:

NASA Langley Researcher to Speak on Mars Phoenix Lander

HAMPTON, Va., Dec. 4 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — Ten years in the making, NASA’s Mars Phoenix Lander successfully completed its mission last month. The mission uncovered significant discoveries about never-before explored areas of the Red Planet. Scientists were able to verify the presence of water-ice in the Martian subsurface, find small concentrations of salts that could be nutrients for life, and observe snow descending from the clouds.

(Logo:  http://www.newscom.com/cgi-bin/prnh/20081007/38461LOGO)

NASA senior engineer Prasun Desai led Langley’s effort to guide Phoenix to a soft landing on the planet’s polar regions. The touchdown was the first successful powered landing on the surface of the Red Planet since the Viking landings over 30 years ago.

Desai will speak on the Mars Phoenix Lander and Langley’s contributions to the mission in a colloquium lecture this Tuesday, Dec. 9 called “Phoenix Lander’s Odyssey to Mars — A Ten Year Journey.” The talk will take place at 2 p.m. in the Reid Conference Center at NASA Langley.

Desai will present the same lecture for the general public on Tuesday evening at 7:30 p.m. at the Virginia Air & Space Center on Settlers Landing Road in Hampton. The evening talk is free and no reservations are required.

A NASA Langley employee for 18 years, Desai has contributed to the design, development and flight operations of many NASA missions pertaining to entry, descent and landing of probes at Mars and Earth. He led the design of the entry, descent and landing system for Langley’s effort on the recent Mars Phoenix Lander mission. He was the NASA Langley lead for the Mars Exploration Rover mission that successfully landed the rovers “Spirit” and “Opportunity” in 2004. He also aided in the design and developments of the Stardust and Genesis entry capsules that were the first to return cometary and solar wind particles.

Photo:  http://www.newscom.com/cgi-bin/prnh/20081007/38461LOGO
AP Archive:  http://photoarchive.ap.org/
PRN Photo Desk photodesk@prnewswire.com
Source: NASA

Web Site:  http://www.nasa.gov/

September 29, 2008

Phoenix Lander sees Martian snow

Wow! Just wow!

The NASA release:

NASA Mars Lander Sees Falling Snow, Soil Data Suggests Liquid Past

WASHINGTON, Sept. 29 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander has detected snow falling from Martian clouds.  Spacecraft soil tests experiments also have provided evidence of past interaction between minerals and liquid water, processes that occur on Earth.

A laser instrument designed to gather knowledge of how the atmosphere and surface interact on Mars, detected snow from clouds about 2.5 miles above the spacecraft’s landing site. Data show the snow vaporizing before reaching the ground.

“Nothing like this view has ever been seen on Mars,” said Jim Whiteway, of York University, Toronto, lead scientist for the Canadian-supplied Meteorological Station on Phoenix. “We’ll be looking for signs that the snow may even reach the ground.”

Phoenix experiments also yielded clues pointing to calcium carbonate, the main composition of chalk, and particles that could be clay. Most carbonates and clays on Earth form only in the presence of liquid water.

“We are still collecting data and have lots of analysis ahead, but we are making good progress on the big questions we set out for ourselves,” said Phoenix Principal Investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Since landing on May 25, Phoenix already has confirmed that a hard subsurface layer at its far-northern site contains water-ice. Determining whether that ice ever thaws would help answer whether the environment there has been favorable for life, a key aim of the mission.

The evidence for calcium carbonate in soil samples from trenches dug by the Phoenix robotic arm comes from two laboratory instruments called the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer, or TEGA, and the wet chemistry laboratory of the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer, or MECA.

“We have found carbonate,” said William Boynton of the University of Arizona, lead scientist for the TEGA. “This points toward episodes of interaction with water in the past.”

The TEGA evidence for calcium carbonate came from a high-temperature release of carbon dioxide from soil samples. The temperature of the release matches a temperature known to decompose calcium carbonate and release carbon dioxide gas, which was identified by the instrument’s mass spectrometer.

The MECA evidence came from a buffering effect characteristic of calcium carbonate assessed in wet chemistry analysis of the soil. The measured concentration of calcium was exactly what would be expected for a solution buffered by calcium carbonate.

Both TEGA, and the microscopy part of MECA have turned up hints of a clay-like substance. “We are seeing smooth-surfaced, platy particles with the atomic-force microscope, not inconsistent with the appearance of clay particles,” said Michael Hecht, MECA lead scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The Phoenix mission, originally planned for three months on Mars, now is in its fifth month. However, it faces a decline in solar energy that is expected to curtail and then end the lander’s activities before the end of the year. Before power ceases, the Phoenix team will attempt to activate a microphone on the lander to possibly capture sounds on Mars.

“For nearly three months after landing, the sun never went below the horizon at our landing site.” said Barry Goldstein, JPL Phoenix project manager. “Now it is gone for more than four hours each night, and the output from our solar panels is dropping each week. Before the end of October, there won’t be enough energy to keep using the robotic arm.”

The Phoenix mission is led by Smith at the University of Arizona. Project management is the responsibility of JPL with development partnership by Lockheed Martin in Denver. International contributions come from the Canadian Space Agency; the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland; the universities of Copenhagen and Aarhus, Denmark; Max Planck Institute, Germany; and the Finnish Meteorological Institute.

For more about Phoenix, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/phoenix.

Source: NASA
   
Web Site:  http://www.nasa.gov/

July 17, 2008

More evidence of past water on Mars

I’ve blogged about Phoenix finding evidence of current water on Mars, and here’s a press release on H2O on the ancient Martian surface.

From the second link:

Water-Rich Terrain

This three-dimensional image of a trough in the Nili Fossae region of Mars shows a type of minerals called phyllosilicates (in magenta and blue hues) concentrated on the slopes of mesas and along canyon walls. The abundance of phyllosilicates shows that water played a sizable role in changing the minerals of a variety of terrains in the planet’s early history.

Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL/University of Arizona/Brown University.

New Findings Show Diverse, Wet Environments on Ancient Mars

Mars once hosted vast lakes, flowing rivers and a variety of other wet environments that had the potential to support life, according to two new studies based on data from the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars(CRISM) and other instruments on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

“The big surprise from these new results is how pervasive and long-lasting Mars’ water was, and how diverse the wet environments were,” says Scott Murchie, CRISM’s principal investigator at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), in Laurel, Md.

One study, published in the July 17 issue of Nature, shows that vast regions of the ancient highlands of Mars—which cover about half the planet—contain clay minerals, which can form only in the presence of water. Volcanic lavas buried the clay-rich regions during subsequent, drier periods of the planet’s history, but impact craters later exposed them at thousands of locations across the planet.

The clay-like minerals, called phyllosilicates, preserve a record of the interaction of water with rocks dating back to what is called the Noachian period of Mars’ history, about 4.6 to 3.8 billion years ago. This period corresponds to the earliest years of the solar system, when Earth, the moon and Mars sustained a cosmic bombardment by comets and asteroids. Rocks of this age have largely been destroyed on Earth by plate tectonics; they are preserved on the moon, but were never exposed to liquid water. The phyllosilicate-containing rocks on Mars therefore preserve a unique record of liquid water environments—possibly suitable for life—in the early solar system.

“The minerals present in Mars’ ancient crust show a variety of wet environments,” says John Mustard, a member of the CRISM team from Brown University in Providence, R.I., and lead author of the Nature study. “In most locations the rocks are lightly altered by liquid water, but in a few locations they have been so altered that a great deal of water must have flushed though the rocks and soil. This is really exciting because we’re finding dozens of sites where future missions can land to understand if Mars was ever habitable and if so, to look for signs of past life.”

A companion study, published in the June 2 issue of Nature Geosciences, finds that the wet conditions persisted for a long time. Thousands to millions of years after the clays were formed, a system of river channels eroded them out of the highlands and concentrated them in a delta where the river emptied into a crater lake slightly larger than California’s Lake Tahoe, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) in diameter. “The distribution of clays inside the ancient lakebed shows that standing water must have persisted for thousands of years,” says Bethany Ehlmann, another member of the CRISM team from Brown and lead author of the study of the ancient lake within Jezero Crater. “Clays are wonderful at trapping and preserving organic matter, so if life ever existed in this region, there’s a chance of its chemistry being preserved in the delta.”

CRISM’s combination of high spatial and spectral resolutions—better than any previous imaging spectrometer sent to Mars—reveals variations in the types and composition of the phyllosilicate minerals. By combining data from CRISM and MRO’s Context Imager (CTX) and High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), the team has identified three principal classes of water-related minerals dating to the early Noachian period: aluminum-phyllosilicates, hydrated silica or opal, and the more common and widespread iron/magnesium-phyllosilicates. The variations in the minerals suggest that different processes, or different types of watery environments, created them.

“Our whole team is turning our findings into a list of sites where future missions could land to look for organic chemistry and perhaps determine whether life ever existed on Mars,” says APL’s Murchie.

APL, which has built more than 150 spacecraft instruments over the past four decades, led the effort to build CRISM, and operates the instrument in coordination with an international team of researchers from universities, government and the private sector. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, is the prime contractor for the project and built the spacecraft.

 

 


The Applied Physics Laboratory, a division of the Johns Hopkins University, meets critical national challenges through the innovative application of science and technology. For more information, visit http://www.jhuapl.edu. For more information on CRISM, visit http://crism.jhuapl.edu.
 

June 20, 2008

H2O on Mars!

Filed under: Science — Tags: , , , — David Kirkpatrick @ 1:28 pm

It’s the early report, but if all is absolutely confirmed this is very, very exciting news for mankind and the future of space travel.

From the link:

Scientists in charge of the Phoenix Mars lander are more convinced there is ice near the Martian North pole as they review new images from the Red Planet. Eight small pieces of a bright material “have vanished from inside a trench where they were photographed by NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander four days ago, convincing scientists that the material was frozen water that vaporized after digging exposed it,” said a statement from Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s website.

“It must be ice,” said Phoenix Principal Investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson. “These little clumps completely disappearing over the course of a few days, that is perfect evidence that it’s ice. There had been some question whether the bright material was salt. Salt can’t do that.”

If you haven’t been following the Mars Phoenix Lander story you might not have heard it’s using Twitter to tweet information back to Earth. Here’s the tweet after the water discovery:

 “Are you ready to celebrate?  Well, get ready: We have ICE!!!!! Yes, ICE, *WATER ICE* on Mars!  w00t!!!  Best day ever!!” the Mars Phoenix Lander tweeted at about 5:15 pm.

 Update 7/31/08 — Water on Mars has been confirmed.

From the link:

“We have water,” said William Boynton of the University of Arizona, lead scientist for the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer, or TEGA. “We’ve seen evidence for this water ice before in observations by the Mars Odyssey orbiter and in disappearing chunks observed by Phoenix last month, but this is the first time Martian water has been touched and tasted.”

With enticing results so far and the spacecraft in good shape, NASA also announced operational funding for the mission will extend through Sept. 30. The original prime mission of three months ends in late August. The mission extension adds five weeks to the 90 days of the prime mission.

“Phoenix is healthy and the projections for solar power look good, so we want to take full advantage of having this resource in one of the most interesting locations on Mars,” said Michael Meyer, chief scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

The soil sample came from a trench approximately 2 inches deep. When the robotic arm first reached that depth, it hit a hard layer of frozen soil. Two attempts to deliver samples of icy soil on days when fresh material was exposed were foiled when the samples became stuck inside the scoop. Most of the material in Wednesday’s sample had been exposed to the air for two days, letting some of the water in the sample vaporize away and making the soil easier to handle.

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