Ice damage finally kills off Phoenix Mars Lander

NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander – which landed two years ago today – will not be rising from the ashes.

Repeated attempts to contact it have failed, and pictures from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) show signs of severe ice damage to the lander’s solar panels.

The MRO image of Phoenix, taken by the HiRISE camera, show the lander casting different shadows to those those seen during its working lifetime.

“Before and after images are dramatically different,” said Michael Mellon of the University of Colorado.

“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.”

The changes are consistent with predictions that the weight of carbon-dioxide ice buildup during the lunar winter could bend or break the lander’s solar panels. Mellon calculated hundreds of pounds of ice probably coated the lander in mid-winter.

Although Phoenix was never designed to survive the winter, there was always a slight chance – and it had already exceeded expectations. After the solar-powered lander completed its three-month mission, it kept working until sunlight waned two months later.

But when NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter flew over the Phoenix landing site 61 times last week in a last effort to communicate with the lander, there was no answer.

“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.”