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  NASA's Phoenix Mars mission (2008) (Page 1)

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Author Topic:   NASA's Phoenix Mars mission (2008)
Robert Pearlman
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Phoenix Heads for Mars, Spacecraft Healthy

A Delta II rocket lit up the early morning sky over Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida as it carried the Phoenix spacecraft on the first leg of its journey to Mars. The powerful three-stage rocket with nine solid rocket motors lifted off at 5:26 a.m. EDT.

An hour and a half later, the Phoenix spacecraft separated from the Delta II and ground controllers at NASA's Deep Space Network acquired its signal and begun assessing its health. The solar panels that provide power for the mission's cruise phase deployed and Phoenix was pointed to best receive solar power and communicate with Earth.

The cruise phase will last for approximately 10 months as Phoenix makes its way to Mars. Targeted for touchdown in May 2008, Phoenix will travel 422 million miles in an outward arc from Earth to Mars. Once on the surface, it will determine whether icy soil on far northern Mars has conditions that have ever been suitable for life.

SpaceAholic
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NASA release
NASA Spacecraft Fine Tunes Course for Mars Landing

NASA engineers have adjusted the flight path of the Phoenix Mars Lander, setting the spacecraft on course for its May 25 landing on the Red Planet.

"This is our first trajectory maneuver targeting a specific location in the northern polar region of Mars," said Brian Portock, chief of the Phoenix navigation team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The mission's two prior trajectory maneuvers, made last August and October, adjusted the flight path of Phoenix to intersect with Mars.

NASA has conditionally approved a landing site in a broad, flat valley informally called "Green Valley." A final decision will be made after NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter takes additional images of the area this month.

The orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera has taken more than three dozen images of the area. Analysis of those images prompted the Phoenix team to shift the center of the landing target 13 kilometers (8 miles) southeastward, away from slightly rockier patches to the northwest. Navigators used that new center for planning today's maneuver.

The landing area is an ellipse about 62 miles by about 12 miles (100 kilometers by 20 kilometers). Researchers have mapped more than five million rocks in and around that ellipse, each big enough to end the mission if hit by the spacecraft during landing. Knowing where to avoid the rockier areas, the team has selected a scientifically exciting target that also offers the best chances for the spacecraft to set itself down safely onto the Martian surface.

"Our landing area has the largest concentration of ice on Mars outside of the polar caps. If you want to search for a habitable zone in the arctic permafrost, then this is the place to go," said Peter Smith, principal investigator for the mission, at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Phoenix will dig to an ice-rich layer expected to lie within arm's reach of the surface. It will analyze the water and soil for evidence about climate cycles and investigate whether the environment there has been favorable for microbial life.

"We have never before had so much information about a Mars site prior to landing," said Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis. Arvidson is chairman of the Phoenix landing-site working group and has worked on Mars landings since the first successful Viking landers in 1976.

"The environmental risks at landing -- rocks and slopes -- represent the most significant threat to a successful mission. There's always a chance that we'll roll snake eyes, but we have identified an area that is very flat and relatively free of large boulders," said JPL's David Spencer, Phoenix deputy project manager and co-chair of the landing site working group.

Today's trajectory adjustment began by pivoting Phoenix 145 degrees to orient and then fire spacecraft thrusters for about 35 seconds, then pivoting Phoenix back to point its main antenna toward Earth. The mission has three more planned opportunities for maneuvers before May 25 to further refine the trajectory for a safe landing at the desired location.

In the final seven minutes of its flight on May 25, Phoenix must perform a challenging series of actions to safely decelerate from nearly 21,000 kilometers per hour (13,000 mph). The spacecraft will release a parachute and then use pulse thrusters at approximately 914 meters (3,000 feet) from the surface to slow to about 8 kilometers per hour (5 mph) and land on three legs.

"Landing on Mars is extremely challenging. In fact, not since the 1970s have we had a successful powered landing on this unforgiving planet. There's no guarantee of success, but we are doing everything we can to mitigate the risks," said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

kking
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The Phoenix landing press kit (PDF, 3mb) is online on JPL's website.

Robert Pearlman
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NASA release
NASA Phoenix Mission Ready for Mars Landing

NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander is preparing to end its long journey and begin a three-month mission to taste and sniff fistfuls of Martian soil and buried ice. The lander is scheduled to touch down on the Red Planet May 25.

Phoenix will enter the top of the Martian atmosphere at almost 13,000 mph. In seven minutes, the spacecraft must complete a challenging sequence of events to slow to about 5 mph before its three legs reach the ground. Confirmation of the landing could come as early as 7:53 p.m. EDT.

"This is not a trip to grandma's house. Putting a spacecraft safely on Mars is hard and risky," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Internationally, fewer than half the attempts have succeeded."

Rocks large enough to spoil the landing or prevent opening of the solar panels present the biggest known risk. However, images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, detailed enough to show individual rocks smaller than the lander, have helped lessen that risk.

"We have blanketed nearly the entire landing area with HiRISE images," said Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis, chairman of the Phoenix landing-site working group. "This is one of the least rocky areas on all of Mars and we are confident that rocks will not detrimentally impact the ability of Phoenix to land safely."

Phoenix uses hardware from a spacecraft built for a 2001 launch that was canceled in response to the loss of a similar Mars spacecraft during a 1999 landing attempt. Researchers who proposed the Phoenix mission in 2002 saw the unused spacecraft as a resource for pursuing a new science opportunity.

Earlier in 2002, NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter discovered that plentiful water ice lies just beneath the surface throughout much of high-latitude Mars. NASA chose the Phoenix proposal over 24 other proposals to become the first endeavor in the Mars Scout program of competitively selected missions.

"Phoenix will land farther north on Mars than any previous mission," said Phoenix Project Manager Barry Goldstein of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

The solar-powered robotic lander will manipulate a 7.7-foot arm to scoop up samples of underground ice and soil lying above the ice. Onboard laboratory instruments will analyze the samples. Cameras and a Canadian-supplied weather station will supply other information about the site's environment.

"The Phoenix mission not only studies the northern permafrost region, but takes the next step in Mars exploration by determining whether this region, which may encompass as much as 25 percent of the Martian surface, is habitable," said Peter Smith, Phoenix principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

One research goal is to assess whether conditions at the site ever have been favorable for microbial life. The composition and texture of soil above the ice could give clues to whether the ice ever melts in response to long-term climate cycles. Another important question is whether the scooped-up samples contain carbon-based chemicals that are potential building blocks and food for life.

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

Robert Pearlman
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Planetary Society release
First Interplanetary Library Will Land on Mars: The Planetary Society Will Celebrate with Events Across the US

The Planetary Society's Visions of Mars DVD aboard Phoenix will land on Mars on May 25, 2008. This first of NASA's Scout missions is led by Principal Investigator Peter Smith at the University of Arizona. Attached to the deck of the Phoenix lander, the DVD includes a collection of 19th and 20th century science fiction stories, essays and art inspired by the Red Planet, as well as the names of more than a quarter million inhabitants of Earth.

"A Message from Earth to future Martian explorers, this DVD is The Planetary Society's gift to those who will someday expand the human presence to other worlds," said Louis Friedman, Executive Director of The Planetary Society, who conceived the idea for Visions of Mars. "We hope astronauts will one day retrieve this first Martian library and enjoy the visionary works and good wishes sent from our time to theirs."

Visions of Mars

Visions of Mars -- the first library on Mars -- contains materials that represent 20 nations and cultures. Visions of Mars includes works by The Planetary Society's co-founder Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Kim Stanley Robinson, Arthur C. Clarke, Percival Lowell and many more.

Phoenix will be the first lander to explore the Martian arctic, touching down near 70 degrees north latitude. Designed to search for and study water ice, the spacecraft is a fixed lander with a suite of advanced instruments and a robotic arm that can dig half a meter into the soil. The Phoenix team hopes to uncover clues in the icy arctic soil about the history of near surface ice and the planet's potential for habitability.

"For more than a century, Mars has beckoned, inspiring tales of wonder and adventure," remarked Bruce Betts, Director of Projects for The Planetary Society. "Many men and women who now work in the space program first turned their eyes to the sky because of the childhood wonder kindled by the astronomical artists and science fiction authors featured on Visions of Mars."

The disk will appear in some of the calibration images that Phoenix takes to adjust its cameras, so people may be able to see it on the Martian surface.

The library should be able to last at least 500 years on Mars, so there will be plenty of time for a future generation to discover and enjoy the works included on the DVD.

Putting a spacecraft safely on Mars is hard and always carries risk. This will be The Planetary Society's second attempt to send Visions of Mars to its namesake planet. It was originally created by the Society to ride aboard Russia's Mars '96 spacecraft, which failed shortly after launch.

Robert Pearlman
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Here are two articles that share links between Phoenix and Apollo 11:
  • Aussie dish to receive first Mars images (The Age)
    Due to the alignment of the earth and Mars, the Canberra deep space communication complex (CDSCC) at Tidbinbilla, a NASA facility, will receive the first images sent back by the lander.

    This is not the first time that Canberra's deep space tracking facilities has been the first to receive data from another world.

    Back in 1969, the first pictures to be sent back from the moon by the Apollo 11 team were received and relayed by a facility at the ACT's Honeysuckle Creek, the predecessor to the modern Tidbinbilla facility.

  • It's time to resolve a Martian cliffhanger (MSNBC)
    Nearly 40 years ago, the Apollo 11 lunar module lowered itself to the moon's surface, precariously balanced on a stream of fire from its braking engine. The final seconds before contact were the most dramatic. And once the two astronauts were on the surface, their first words were not the phrases about Tranquility Base and the Eagle having landed.

    The first words were even more important to the guys turning blue at Mission Control: "OK, engine stop."

    On Sunday, the same sort of drama will play out on Mars. When NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander nears the Red Planet's surface, balanced on its own fountain of fire, the critical moment will be turning off the engine at the right moment -- neither too soon, nor too late. Then comes the next step: keeping it off.

Robert Pearlman
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NASA release
Phoenix Landing Events Schedule

Times are Pacific Daylight and some are subject to change.

The times below for the Phoenix spacecraft events on May 25 are for a nominal scenario. Remaining navigational adjustments before May 25 could shift the times by up to about half a minute. In addition, the times for some events relative to others could vary by several seconds due to variations in the Martian atmosphere and other factors.

For some events, a "give or take" range of times is given, covering 99 percent of possible scenarios from the atmospheric entry time. For events at Mars, times are listed in "Earth-receive time" (ERT) rather than "spacecraft event time" (SCET). This means the listed time incorporates the interval necessary for radio signals traveling at the speed of light to reach Earth from Mars.

On landing day, May 25, the two planets are 275 million kilometers apart (171 million miles), which means it takes the signal 15 minutes and 20 seconds to reach Earth. For some spacecraft events, engineers will not receive immediate radio confirmation.

  • Trajectory correction maneuver opportunity (TCM6X), 8:46 a.m.
  • News briefing, noon
  • Begin non-commentary live television feed from JPL control room, 3 p.m.
  • Begin commentated live television feed from JPL control room, 3:30 p.m.
  • Propulsion system pressurization, 4:16 p.m.
  • Begin "bent-pipe" relay relay (continuous transmission of Phoenix data as it is received) through NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft to Goldstone, Calif., Deep Space Network station, 4:38 p.m.
  • Green Bank, W. Va., radio telescope listening for direct UHF from Phoenix, 4:38 p.m.
  • Cruise stage separates, 4:39 p.m.
  • Spacecraft turns to attitude for atmospheric entry, 4:40 p.m.
  • Spacecraft enters atmosphere, 4:46:33 p.m.
  • Likely blackout period as hot plasma surrounds spacecraft, 4:47 through 4:49 p.m.
  • Parachute deploys, 4:50:15 p.m., plus or minus about 13 seconds.
  • Heat shield jettisoned, 4:50:30 p.m., plus or minus about 13 seconds.
  • Legs deploy, 4:50:40 p.m., plus or minus about 13 seconds.
  • Radar activated, 4:51:30 p.m.
  • Lander separates from backshell, 4:53:09 p.m., plus or minus about 46 seconds.
  • Transmission gap during switch to helix antenna 4:53:08 to 4:53:14 p.m.
  • Descent thrusters throttle up, 4:53:12 p.m.
  • Constant-velocity phase starts, 4:53:34 p.m., plus or minus about 46 seconds.
  • Touchdown, 4:53:52 p.m., plus or minus about 46 seconds.
  • Lander radio off 4:54:52 p.m., plus or minus about 46 seconds.
  • Begin opening solar arrays (during radio silence) 5:13 p.m.
  • Begin NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter playback of Phoenix transmissions recorded during entry, descent and landing, 5:28 p.m. However, data for analysis will not be ready until several hours later.
  • Begin Europe's Mars Express spacecraft playback of Phoenix transmissions recorded during entry, descent and landing, 5:30 p.m. However, data for analysis will not be ready until several hours later.
  • Post-landing poll of subsystem teams about spacecraft status, 5:30 p.m.
  • Mars Odyssey "bent-pipe" relay of transmission from Phoenix, with engineering data and possibly including first images, 6:43 to 7:02 p.m. Data could take up to about 30 additional minutes in pipeline before being accessible. If all goes well, live television feed from control room may show first images as they are received. The first images to be taken after landing will be of solar arrays, to check deployment status.
  • News briefing, 9 p.m.

Robert Pearlman
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JPL update:
Phoenix Lander Update: No Saturday Night Maneuver

Mission controllers for NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander decided Saturday afternoon, May 24, to forgo the second-to-last opportunity for adjusting the spacecraft's flight path.

Phoenix is so well on course for its Sunday-evening landing on an arctic Martian plain that the team decided it was not necessary to do a trajectory correction 21 hours before landing.

However, the team left open the option of a correction maneuver eight hours before landing, if warranted by updated navigational information expected in the intervening hours.

Sunday at 4:53 p.m. Pacific Time is the first possible time for confirmation that Phoenix has landed. The landing would have happened 15 minutes earlier on Mars, but the radio signals take 15 minutes to travel from Mars to Earth at the distance separating the two planets today.

Robert Pearlman
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Peanuts! Get your peanuts here! Can't have a landing without peanuts...
There is a tradition at JPL to eat "good luck peanuts" before critical mission events, such as orbital insertions or landings. As the story goes, after the Ranger program had experienced failure after failure during the 1960s, the first succesful mission of the Ranger program landed on the Moon while a JPL staffer was munching on peanuts. The staff jokingly decided that the peanuts must have been a good luck charm and the tradition persists today. -- Wikipedia
  • How to Kill Mission Landing Nerves: Peanuts (LiveScience Blogs)
    With nerves likely to run high as the time for landing gets closer and closer, Goldstein will be using a long-time JPL nerve-killing tradition: passing out peanuts to the mission control crew.

    The practice has apparently been in place since the Ranger missions to the moon. After the first few failed, those in mission control began to pop peanuts in an attempt to calm their nerves.

    Phoenix will uphold this grand tradition, Goldstein said, adding, "I've already purchased the peanuts."

  • Peanuts and Rolling Stones on hand for Mars landing (New Scientist)
    The peanuts are a Jet Propulsion Lab tradition, but unlike at the last Mars landing, these peanuts will still be in their shells. "I think we need to go through the process" of opening up the peanuts to calm edgy nerves, he told New Scientist.

    In addition to the peanuts, lucky blueberries will also make an appearance - a nod to the Opportunity rover, which found iron-rich spherules, nicknamed blueberries, soon after it became the last spacecraft to successfully touch down on Mars.

Robert Pearlman
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Phoenix has jettisoned its cruise stage, including the solar arrays that provided power during its journey from the Earth to Mars.

Robert Pearlman
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Phoenix has started sensing the top of the Martian atmosphere. During the next three minutes, friction will take most of the velocity out of the spacecraft's descent, heating the forward-facing surface of its heat shield to a peak of about 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit.

Robert Pearlman
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Phoenix has deployed its parachute! The spacecraft will descend on the parachute for nearly three minutes.

Robert Pearlman
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Phoenix has separated from its back shell and parachute, about six-tenths of a mile above the ground.

Robert Pearlman
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NASA's Phoenix spacecraft is broadcasting from the surface of Mars!

"Phoenix has landed! Phoenix has landed! Welcome to the northern plains of Mars!" exclaimed mission commentator Richard Kornfeld.

At 6:53 p.m. CDT, flight controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory saw confirmation that the lander safely touched down in a region of Vastitas Borealis unofficially named 'Green Valley', near the north pole of the planet (68.22 degrees latitude, 234.3 degrees longitude).

With this landing, Phoenix is now the sixth spacecraft in history to successfully touch down on the surface and the first to land under controlled descent since Viking 1 and 2 in 1976.

Robert Pearlman
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First images received via relay with Mars Odyssey confirm Phoenix is on level ground and its solar arrays have deployed!

Robert Pearlman
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NASA release
NASA's Phoenix Spacecraft Lands at Martian Arctic Site

NASA's Phoenix spacecraft landed in the northern polar region of Mars Sunday to begin three months of examining a site chosen for its likelihood of having frozen water within reach of the lander's robotic arm.

Radio signals received at 4:53:44 p.m. Pacific Time (7:53:44 p.m. Eastern Time) confirmed the Phoenix Mars Lander had survived its difficult final descent and touchdown 15 minutes earlier. The signals took that long to travel from Mars to Earth at the speed of light.

Mission team members at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.; Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver; and the University of Arizona, Tucson, cheered confirmation of the landing and eagerly awaited further information from Phoenix later Sunday night.

Among those in the JPL control room was NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who noted this was the first successful Mars landing without airbags since Viking 2 in 1976.

"For the first time in 32 years, and only the third time in history, a JPL team has carried out a soft landing on Mars," Griffin said. "I couldn't be happier to be here to witness this incredible achievement."

During its 422-million-mile flight from Earth to Mars after launching on Aug. 4, 2007, Phoenix relied on electricity from solar panels during the spacecraft's cruise stage. The cruise stage was jettisoned seven minutes before the lander, encased in a protective shell, entered the Martian atmosphere. Batteries provide electricity until the lander's own pair of solar arrays spread open.

"We've passed the hardest part and we're breathing again, but we still need to see that Phoenix has opened its solar arrays and begun generating power," said JPL's Barry Goldstein, the Phoenix project manager. If all goes well, engineers will learn the status of the solar arrays between 7 and 7:30 p.m. Pacific Time (10 and 10:30 p.m. Eastern Time) from a Phoenix transmission relayed via NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter.

The team will also be watching for the Sunday night transmission to confirm that masts for the stereo camera and the weather station have swung to their vertical positions.

"What a thrilling landing! But the team is waiting impatiently for the next set of signals that will verify a healthy spacecraft," said Peter Smith of the University of Arizona, principal investigator for the Phoenix mission. "I can hardly contain my enthusiasm. The first landed images of the Martian polar terrain will set the stage for our mission."

Another critical deployment will be the first use of the 7.7-foot-long robotic arm on Phoenix, which will not be attempted for at least two days. Researchers will use the arm during future weeks to get samples of soil and ice into laboratory instruments on the lander deck.

The signal confirming that Phoenix had survived touchdown was relayed via Mars Odyssey and received on Earth at the Goldstone, Calif., antenna station of NASA's Deep Space Network.

Phoenix uses hardware from a spacecraft built for a 2001 launch that was canceled in response to the loss of a similar Mars spacecraft during a 1999 landing attempt. Researchers who proposed the Phoenix mission in 2002 saw the unused spacecraft as a resource for pursuing a new science opportunity. Earlier in 2002, Mars Odyssey discovered that plentiful water ice lies just beneath the surface throughout much of high-latitude Mars. NASA chose the Phoenix proposal over 24 other proposals to become the first endeavor in the Mars Scout program of competitively selected missions.

The Phoenix mission is led by Smith at the University of Arizona with project management at JPL and development partnership at Lockheed Martin, 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.

Robert Pearlman
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University of Central Florida release
UCF Invention Onboard Phoenix Mars Lander Will Reveal Planet's True Colors

When NASA's Phoenix lander touches down on Mars Sunday, it will be carrying two special tools to give scientists their best look at the Red Planet's true colors.

They're called color-calibration targets and are about the size of hockey pucks. Each device is covered with color chips, designed by University of Central Florida Physics and Astronomy Professor Dan Britt and two students. When Phoenix's camera takes pictures of the terrain, it will also capture the calibration targets, allowing scientists to compare the colors in each photo and determine the actual hues.

Knowing the true colors allows spectroscopists, such as Britt, to determine what makes up the planet's terrain. The colors are one reason NASA says that liquid water once existed on Mars, and they help geologists analyze layers of rock deposited over thousands of years.

"Mars is a dusty place with a harsh climate," said Britt, who has worked on calibration targets for four other Mars missions. Over time, dust covered the previous targets and color chips, making it nearly impossible to decipher accurate hues.

So, for the first time, calibration targets on the Phoenix Mars have built-in magnets to repel the dust. Each magnet is about 100 times stronger than a refrigerator magnet and should keep the targets "clean" while the lander samples soils in the Martian arctic region.

While Britt created the color chips, the targets and magnets were designed by scientists from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

The lander is expected to reach its destination May 25, after a 422-million mile trip since its launching last August. Besides Britt's targets and a camera, Phoenix is equipped with a robotic arm that scientists hope will scoop up water ice thought to be just under Mars' surface.

With past color-calibration targets, Britt and his team -- which has included a University of Florida professor and UCF students -- have helped scientists learn more about Mars' surface, which Britt says is actually yellowish-brown and not red.

Britt started creating the color chips for Phoenix about three years ago in his lab at UCF. Made of rubbery silicon and paint pigments, the color chips were embedded in an aluminum casting and tested under extreme conditions -- intense ultraviolet light and depressurization -- before they left Earth last year.

Also new on several of the Phoenix lander's color targets is a special metal-infused coating created by Britt and UF chemistry professor Randolph S. Duran. The coating also should help keep away the dust, Britt says.

About a decade ago, Britt served as project manager and Deputy Imaging Team leader for the camera on NASA's Mars Pathfinder. He also participated in NASA's Deep Space One mission to encounter comet 19P/Borrelly in 2001. Now, he's working on fluorescent colored chips for future calibration targets for the Mars Science Laboratory rover, scheduled to launch in fall 2009. They're expected to help scientists capture infrared photos of the terrain for future analysis of the mysterious, so-called "Red Planet."

"We're doing this work to support future missions," he said. "It's always fun to build things that end up on other planets."

Here is the UCF target as photographed on Phoenix on Mars:

Robert Pearlman
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This image shows a polygonal pattern in the ground near NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander, similar in appearance to icy ground in the arctic regions of Earth.

This is an approximate-color image taken shortly after landing by the spacecraft's Surface Stereo Imager, inferred from two color filters, a violet, 450-nanometer filter and an infrared, 750-nanometer filter.

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From an Alliant Techsystems (ATK) release:
Alliant Techsystems announces that the Ultraflex Solar Arrays deployed and now provide power to the Mars Phoenix Lander. This is the first flight for this unique solar array technology developed by ATK's Goleta, California facility. Each Ultraflex array unfolded like an oriental fan into a circular shape 2.1 meters in diameter and will generate 770 watts of power from sunlight at the distance Earth is from the sun. Since Mars is approximately 1.5 times farther from the sun, the solar arrays will produce less than half the power possible on Earth.
The same Ultraflex technology will be used for the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle's 5-meter solar arrays.

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NASA photo release
NASA's Mars Phoenix Lander can be seen parachuting down to Mars, in this image captured by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This is the first time that a spacecraft has imaged the final descent of another spacecraft onto a planetary body.

From a distance of about 760 kilometers (472 miles) above the surface of the Red Planet, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter pointed its HiRISE obliquely toward Phoenix shortly after it opened its parachute while descending through the Martian atmosphere. The image reveals an apparent 10-meter-wide (30-foot-wide) parachute fully inflated. The bright pixels below the parachute show a dangling Phoenix. The image faintly detects the chords attaching the backshell and parachute. The surroundings look dark, but correspond to the fully illuminated Martian surface, which is much darker than the parachute and backshell.

Phoenix released its parachute at an altitude of about 12.6 kilometers (7.8 miles) and a velocity of 1.7 times the speed of sound.

The HiRISE acquired this image on May 25, 2008, at 4:36 p.m. Pacific Time (7:36 p.m. Eastern Time). It is a highly oblique view of the Martian surface, 26 degrees above the horizon, or 64 degrees from the normal straight-down imaging of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The image has a scale of 0.76 meters per pixel.

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NASA photo release
The butterfly-like object in this picture is NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander, as seen from above by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

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If you thought yesterday's parachute view was spectacular, wait until you see this...
This oblique view has been rotated so that Heimdall crater is facing up. Phoenix, caught in its Promethean act, is between 8 and 10 kilometers above the surface, descending in the foreground at a distance of approximately 20 kilometers from the crater. It's landing site was ultimately beyond the crater's ejecta blanket.

The inset is an enhanced version at full resolution, showing some details of the parachute.

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NASA photo release
Scientists leading NASA's Phoenix Mars mission from the University of Arizona in Tucson sent commands to unstow its robotic arm on Wednesday morning.

Robotic arm manager Bob Bonitz explained during a press briefing how the arm was to be unstowed. "It's a series of seven moves, beginning with rotating the wrist to release the forearm from its launch restraint. Another series of moves releases the elbow from its launch restraints and moves the elbow from underneath the biobarrier."

The above image, posted late on Wednesday, shows that the arm is in the process of being unstowed.

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The science team has started naming the rocks, drawing from fairy tales and folk legends, The New York Times reports.
One Humpty-Dumpty-inspired rock was named "King's Men," and another "King's Horses." One otrough was named "Sleepy Hollow," so two nearby rocks are now "Ichabod" after Ichabod Crane, the main character of the story, and "Headless," the headless horseman who pursues Ichabod.

"This allows the team to have a little fun with the naming opportunities," Dr. Smith said, "because we're going to use as many as one or two hundred names throughout the mission, and it helps us remember what they are."

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NASA photo release
Scientists have discovered what may be ice that was exposed when soil was blown away as NASA's Phoenix spacecraft landed on Mars last Sunday, May 25. The possible ice appears in an image the robotic arm camera took underneath the lander, near a footpad.

"We could very well be seeing rock, or we could be seeing exposed ice in the retrorocket blast zone," said Ray Arvidson of Washington University, St. Louis, Mo., co-investigator for the robotic arm. "We'll test the two ideas by getting more data, including color data, from the robotic arm camera. We think that if the hard features are ice, they will become brighter because atmospheric water vapor will collect as new frost on the ice.

Testing last night of a Phoenix instrument that bakes and sniffs samples to identify ingredients identified a possible short circuit.
This prompted commands for diagnostic steps to be developed and sent to the lander in the next few days. The instrument is the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer. It includes a calorimeter that tracks how much heat is needed to melt or vaporize substances in a sample, plus a mass spectrometer to examine vapors driven off by the heat. The Thursday, May 29, tests recorded electrical behavior consistent with an intermittent short circuit in the spectrometer portion.

"We have developed a strategy to gain a better understanding of this behavior, and we have identified workarounds for some of the possibilities," said William Boynton of the University of Arizona, Tucson, lead scientist for the instrument.

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NASA photo release
A view of the ground underneath NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander adds to evidence that descent thrusters dispersed overlying soil and exposed a harder substrate that may be ice.

The image received Friday night from the spacecraft's Robotic Arm Camera shows patches of smooth and level surfaces beneath the thrusters.

"This suggests we have an ice table under a thin layer of loose soil," said the lead scientist for the Robotic Arm Camera, Horst Uwe Keller of Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany.

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NASA photo release
NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander reached out and touched the Martian soil for the first time on Saturday, May 31, the first step in a series of actions expected to bring soil and ice to the lander's experiments.

The lander's Robotic Arm scoop left an impression that resembles a footprint at a place provisionally named Yeti in the King of Hearts target zone, away from the area that eventually will be sampled for evaluation. [read more]

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NASA photo release
One week after landing on far-northern Mars, NASA Phoenix spacecraft lifted its first scoop of Martian soil as a test of the lander's Robotic Arm.

The practice scoop was emptied onto a designated dump area on the ground after the Robotic Arm Camera photographed the soil inside the scoop. The Phoenix team plans to have the arm deliver its next scoopful, later this week, to an instrument that heats and sniffs the sample to identify ingredients.

A glint of bright material appears in the scooped up soil and in the hole from which it came. "That bright material might be ice or salt. We're eager to do testing of the next three surface samples collected nearby to learn more about it," said Ray Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis, Phoenix co-investigator for the Robotic Arm.

The camera on the arm examined the lander's first scoop of Martian soil. "The camera has its own red, green and blue lights, and we combine separate images taken with different illumination to create color images," said the University of Arizona's Pat Woida, senior engineer on the Phoenix team. [read more]

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Following Wednesday's briefing on the mission, the Phoenix team learned that NASA's Odyssey orbiter, which relays Phoenix data to and from Earth, had entered a "safe mode," preventing Wednesday's (or sol 10) instructions from reaching the lander. Instead, Phoenix will complete a sequence of commands that are already stored on board. That sequence includes instructions for the lander to continue taking images required to assemble a full-color 360-degree high-resolution panorama.

Odyssey mission managers are doing a check out of the orbiter to determine what triggered the safe mode. During safe mode, the spacecraft turns off non-essential operations and waits for instructions from Earth. In the meantime, the Phoenix team has been directed to issue commands to the lander and receive data through Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). While Phoenix has been primarily utilizing Odyssey for relay services since MRO's UHF radio unexpectedly powered off during a relay pass on Sol 2, the radio has been exercised repeatedly over the past week and appears to be operating well. [read more]

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NASA photo release
A microscope on NASA's Mars Phoenix Lander has taken images of dust and sand particles with the greatest resolution ever returned from another planet.

The mission's Optical Microscope observed particles that had fallen onto an exposed surface, revealing grains as small as one-tenth the diameter of a human hair.

"We have images showing the diversity of mineralogy on Mars at a scale that is unprecedented in planetary exploration," said Michael Hecht of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena. He is the lead scientist for Phoenix's Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA) instrument suite. [read more]

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Members of the Johnson Space Center science team who will help validate measurements made from instruments aboard the Phoenix Mars Lander met with the media on June 9.

On the instrument deck of Phoenix are miniature ovens, a mass spectrometer, an atomic force microscope and a "chemistry lab in a box" to analyze the samples. Equipment at JSC will be used to provide 'ground truth' for measurements made by the Phoenix Thermal Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA) on Mars.

Research scientist Brad Sutter demonstrates the mass spectrometer used at JSC to simulate the lower pressure on Mars while identifying the chemical composition of sample minerals.
A partial replica of the mass spectrometer on Phoenix.
Part of the lab's "library" of mineral specimens, from which they can test to match samples collected on Mars. The samples are all Earth based.

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There be ice in them thar hills trenches...
Dice-size crumbs of 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. [read more]

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Reuters: Martian soil appears able to support life
"Flabbergasted" NASA scientists said on Thursday that Martian soil appeared to contain the requirements to support life, although more work would be needed to prove it.

Scientists working on the Phoenix Mars Lander mission, which has already found ice on the planet, said preliminary analysis by the lander's instruments on a sample of soil scooped up by the spacecraft's robotic arm had shown it to be much more alkaline than expected.

"We basically have found what appears to be the requirements, the nutrients, to support life whether past present or future," Sam Kounaves, the lead investigator for the wet chemistry laboratory on Phoenix, told journalists.

"It is the type of soil you would probably have in your back yard, you know, alkaline. You might be able to grow asparagus in it really well... It is very exciting for us."

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NASA release
NASA Spacecraft Confirms Martian Water, Mission Extended

Laboratory tests aboard NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander have identified water in a soil sample. The lander's robotic arm delivered the sample Wednesday to an instrument that identifies vapors produced by the heating of samples.

"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.

"Mars is giving us some surprises," said Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona. "We're excited because surprises are where discoveries come from. One surprise is how the soil is behaving. The ice-rich layers stick to the scoop when poised in the sun above the deck, different from what we expected from all the Mars simulation testing we've done. That has presented challenges for delivering samples, but we're finding ways to work with it and we're gathering lots of information to help us understand this soil."

Since landing on May 25, Phoenix has been studying soil with a chemistry lab, TEGA, a microscope, a conductivity probe and cameras. Besides confirming the 2002 finding from orbit of water ice near the surface and deciphering the newly observed stickiness, the science team is trying to determine whether the water ice ever thaws enough to be available for biology and if carbon-containing chemicals and other raw materials for life are present.

The mission is examining the sky as well as the ground. A Canadian instrument is using a laser beam to study dust and clouds overhead.

"It's a 30-watt light bulb giving us a laser show on Mars," said Victoria Hipkin of the Canadian Space Agency.

A full-circle, color panorama of Phoenix's surroundings also has been completed by the spacecraft.

"The details and patterns we see in the ground show an ice-dominated terrain as far as the eye can see," said Mark Lemmon of Texas A&M University, lead scientist for Phoenix's Surface Stereo Imager camera. "They help us plan measurements we're making within reach of the robotic arm and interpret those measurements on a wider scale."

The Phoenix mission is led by Smith at the University of Arizona with project management at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and development partnership at Lockheed Martin in Denver. International contributions come from the Canadian Space Agency; the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland; the universities of Copenhagen and Aarhus in Denmark; the Max Planck Institute in Germany; and the Finnish Meteorological Institute.

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Aviation Week: White House Briefed On Potential For Mars Life
The White House has been alerted by NASA about plans to make an announcement soon on major new Phoenix lander discoveries concerning the "potential for life" on Mars, scientists tell Aviation Week & Space Technology.

Sources say the new data do not indicate the discovery of existing or past life on Mars. Rather the data relate to habitability--the "potential" for Mars to support life--at the Phoenix arctic landing site, sources say.

The data are much more complex than results related NASA's July 31 announcement that Phoenix has confirmed the presence of water ice at the site.

International news media trumpeted the water ice confirmation, which was not a surprise to any of the Phoenix researchers. "They have discovered water on Mars for the third or fourth time," one senior Mars scientists joked about the hubbub around the water ice announcement.

The other data not discussed openly yet are far more "provocative," Phoenix officials say.

The Bush Administration's Presidential Science Advisor's office, however, has been briefed on the new information that NASA hopes to release as early as mid August. It is possible an announcement would not come until September, to allow for additional analysis. That will depend upon the latest results still being analyzed from the spacecraft's organic oven and soil chemistry laboratories.

Phoenix scientists have said from the start that neither the TEGA organic chemistry lab nor the MECA wet chemistry system could detect current or past life.

MECA's two microscopes do, however, have the resolution to detect bacteria--which would be life. Sources, however, say the microscopes have not detected bacteria.

The MECA instrument, in its first of four wet chemistry runs a month ago, found soil chemistry that is "Earth-like" and capable of supporting life, researchers said then.

It is intriguing that MECA could have found anything more positive than that, but NASA and the University of Arizona are taking steps to prevent word from leaking out on the nature of the discovery made during MECA's second soil test, in which water from Earth was automatically stirred with Martian soil.

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Aviation Week: Phoenix Data More Negative On Potential For Life
NASA will announce today that new data from the Phoenix Mars lander indicate that it is looking less conclusive that soil analyzed by the lander's soil chemistry experiment is Earth-like and can support life.

An initial soil test by the Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA) instrument indicated that the soil is highly Earth-like. The second test, however, is leading scientists to view the data as more inconclusive.

Other media outlets and websites around the world incorrectly reported that the "potential for life" meant that actual life on Mars had been detected. Coverage by Aviation Week states that the wet chemistry experiment can not detect life, nor can any other Phoenix instrument such as the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA) organics experiment.

NASA disputes that any of the information was provided to the White House in advance. But such data are routinely passed between NASA and White House science staff when briefings are planned, as is the case with the new MECA data. A briefing is set for Aug. 5.

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NASA release
NASA Spacecraft Analyzing Martian Soil Data

Scientists are analyzing results from soil samples delivered several weeks ago to science instruments on NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander to understand the landing site's soil chemistry and mineralogy.

Within the last month, two samples have been analyzed by the Wet Chemistry Lab of the spacecraft's Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer, or MECA, suggesting one of the soil constituents may be perchlorate, a highly oxidizing substance. The Phoenix team has been waiting for complementary results from the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer, or TEGA, which also is capable of detecting perchlorate. TEGA is a series of ovens and analyzers that "sniff" vapors released from substances in a sample.

NASA will hold a media teleconference on Tuesday, Aug. 5, at 2 p.m. EDT, to discuss these recent science activities.

Confirmation of the presence of perchlorate and supporting data is important prior to scientific peer review and subsequent public announcements. The results from Sunday's TEGA experiment, which analyzed a sample taken directly above the ice layer, found no evidence of this compound.

"This is surprising since an earlier TEGA measurement of surface materials was consistent with but not conclusive of the presence of perchlorate," said Peter Smith, Phoenix's principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Scientists at the Phoenix Science Operations Center at the University of Arizona, Tucson, are specifically looking at the data from these instruments to provide information on the composition of Martian soil.

"We are committed to following a rigorous scientific process. While we have not completed our process on these soil samples, we have very interesting intermediate results," said Smith, "Initial MECA analyses suggested Earth-like soil. Further analysis has revealed un-Earthlike aspects of the soil chemistry."

The team also is working to totally exonerate any possibility of the perchlorate readings being influenced by terrestrial sources which may have migrated from the spacecraft, either into samples or into the instrumentation.

"When surprising results are found, we want to review and assure our extensive pre-launch contamination control processes covered this potential," said Barry Goldstein, Phoenix project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Since landing on May 25, Phoenix has been studying Martian soil with MECA's wet chemistry lab, two microscopes and a conductivity probe, TEGA's ovens and two cameras.

MECA's robotic wet chemistry lab studies soluble chemicals in the soil by mixing a soil sample with a water-based solution with several reagents brought from Earth. The inner surface of each cell's beaker has 26 sensors that give information about the acidity or alkalinity and concentrations of elements such as chloride or perchlorate. The beaker also can detect concentrations of magnesium, calcium and potassium, which form salts that are soluble in water.

With continuing results and the spacecraft in good condition, the mission has been extended 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.

The Phoenix mission is led by Smith at the University of Arizona with project management at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and development partnership at Lockheed Martin in Denver. International contributions come from the Canadian Space Agency; the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland; the universities of Copenhagen and Aarhus in Denmark; the Max Planck Institute in Germany; and the Finnish Meteorological Institute.

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Associated Press: NASA extends Mars lander mission again
NASA is extending the Phoenix Mars mission again. The three-legged spacecraft has been digging trenches near the Martian north pole since landing on May 25 and its work was supposed to end this month. Phoenix is studying whether the site could have been favorable for microbial life to emerge.

NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown said Thursday the space agency will invest about $6 million to keep the $422 million mission going through December.

It's the second and possibly last extension since the lander may not survive the upcoming Martian winter.

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AFP: Let it snow -- on Mars: NASA
In an unprecedented discovery, NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander has found snow falling from clouds on Mars, scientists said Tuesday.

A laser instrument collecting data on how the atmosphere and surface interact on Mars detected snow from clouds about four kilometers (2.5 miles) above the spacecraft's landing site. The date found the snow vaporized 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."

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NASA release
NASA's Phoenix Mission Faces Survival Challenges

In a race against time and the elements, engineers with NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander mission hope to extend the lander's survival by gradually shutting down some of its instruments and heaters, starting today.

Originally scheduled to last 90 days, Phoenix has completed a fifth month of exploration in the Martian arctic. As expected, with the Martian northern hemisphere shifting from summer to fall, the lander is generating less power due to shorter days and fewer hours of sunlight reaching its solar panels. At the same time, the spacecraft requires more power to run several survival heaters that allow it to operate even as temperatures decline.

"If we did nothing, it wouldn't be long before the power needed to operate the spacecraft would exceed the amount of power it generates on a daily basis," said Phoenix Project Manager Barry Goldstein of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "By turning off some heaters and instruments, we can extend the life of the lander by several weeks and still conduct some science."

Over the next several weeks, four survival heaters will be shut down, one at a time, in an effort to conserve power. The heaters serve the purpose of keeping the electronics within tested survivable limits. As each heater is disabled, some of the instruments are also expected to cease operations. The energy saved is intended to power the lander's main camera and meteorological instruments until the very end of the mission.

Later today, engineers will send commands to disable the first heater. That heater warms Phoenix's robotic arm, robotic-arm camera, and thermal and evolved-gas analyzer (TEGA), an instrument that bakes and sniffs Martian soil to assess volatile ingredients. Shutting down this heater is expected to save 250 watt-hours of power per Martian day.

The Phoenix team has parked the robotic arm on a representative patch of Martian soil. No additional soil samples will be gathered. The thermal and electrical-conductivity probe (TECP), located on the wrist of the arm, has been inserted into the soil and will continue to measure soil temperature and conductivity, along with atmospheric humidity near the surface. The probe does not need a heater to operate and should continue to send back data for weeks.

Throughout the mission, the lander's robotic arm successfully dug and scraped Martian soil and delivered it to the onboard laboratories. "We turn off this workhorse with the knowledge that it has far exceeded expectations and conducted every operation asked of it," said Ray Arvidson, the robotic arm's co-investigator, and a professor at Washington University, St. Louis.

When power levels necessitate further action, Phoenix engineers will disable a second heater, which serves the lander's pyrotechnic initiation unit. The unit hasn't been used since landing, and disabling its heater is expected to add four to five days to the mission's lifetime. Following that step, engineers would disable a third heater, which warms Phoenix's main camera -- the Surface Stereo Imager -and the meteorological suite of instruments. Electronics that operate the meteorological instruments should generate enough heat on their own to keep most of those instruments and the camera functioning.

In the final step, Phoenix engineers may turn off a fourth heater -- one of two survival heaters that warm the spacecraft and its batteries. This would leave one remaining survival heater to run out on its own.

"At that point, Phoenix will be at the mercy of Mars," said Chris Lewicki of JPL, lead mission manger.

Engineers are also preparing for solar conjunction, when the sun is directly between Earth and Mars. Between Nov. 28 and Dec. 13, Mars and the sun will be within two degrees of each other as seen from Earth, blocking radio transmission between the spacecraft and Earth. During that time, no commands will be sent to Phoenix, but daily downlinks from Phoenix will continue through NASA's Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance orbiters. At this time, controllers can't predict whether the fourth heater would be disabled before or after conjunction.


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