NASA is to start listening out for radio transmissions from the Phoenix Mars Lander next week, although it doesn’t hold out much hope.
The plucky little lander managed to operate for two months longer than its expected three months. The lander’s hardware wasn’t designed to survive the temperature extremes and ice-coating load of an arctic Martian winter.
In the extremely unlikely case that Phoenix survived the winter, and if its solar cells are still working adequately, it should periodically try to communicate with any available Mars relay orbiters in an attempt to reestablish contact with Earth. During each communications attempt, the lander would alternately use each of its two radios and each of its two antennas.
Odyssey will pass over the Phoenix landing site approximately 10 times each day during three consecutive days of listening next week, and there will be two longer listening campaigns in February and March.
“We do not expect Phoenix to have survived, and therefore do not expect to hear from it. However, if Phoenix is transmitting, Odyssey will hear it,” said Chad Edwards, chief telecommunications engineer for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We will perform a sufficient number of Odyssey contact attempts that if we don’t detect a transmission from Phoenix, we can have a high degree of confidence that the lander is not active.”
If Odyssey does hear from Phoenix, the orbiter will attempt to lock onto the signal and gain information about the lander’s status. The initial task would be to determine what capabilities Phoenix retains, information that NASA would consider in decisions about any further steps.