NASA in race to extend life of Mars Phoenix Lander

Img: "Snow White" trench.Credit: NASA

Despite already extending its use by date by two months, NASA's Mars Phoenix Lander is being tweaked by controllers to further extend its survival on the surface of the Red Planet and continue scientific experiments.

NASA says the craft's handlers are gradually shutting down some instruments and heaters as its solar panels receive less power to function as the Martian winter sets in.

"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. in a space agency statement. "By turning off some heaters and instruments, we can extend the life of the lander by several weeks and still conduct some science."

Controllers will gradually close down the instruments over the next few weeks in an attempt to keep the Lander's main camera and meteorological instruments operational until the end of the mission. Mission controllers say the craft's robotic arm, which has dug the Martian surface and returned the samples to the craft will also be shut down.

"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.

Mission controllers are also preparing for November 28 to December 13 when Mars' position in relation to the Earth will prevent radio transmission betwenn Phoenix and Earth. Though no commands will be sent from NASA headquarters to the craft, daily downlinks from Phoenix will continue through NASA's orbiting Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance spacecraft.

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