Nearly A Decade After Mars Phoenix Landed, Another Look

This animation blinks between two images of NASA’s Mars Phoenix Lander hardware around the mission’s 2008 landing site on far-northern Mars. By late 2017, dust obscures much of what was visible two months after the landing. The lander is near the top; the back shell and parachute near the bottom. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

February 20, 2018 – A recent view from Mars orbit of the site where NASA’s Phoenix Mars mission landed on far-northern Mars nearly a decade ago shows that dust has covered some marks of the landing.

The Phoenix lander itself, plus its back shell and parachute, are still visible in the image taken December 21, 2017, by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. But an animated-blink comparison with an image from about two months after the May 25, 2008, landing shows that patches of ground that had been darkened by removal of dust during landing events have become coated with dust again.

Phoenix was sent to the surface of Mars to search for evidence of past or present microbial life. Using a robotic arm, it could dig up to half a meter into the Red Planet to collect samples and return them to onboard instruments for analysis. 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 mission’s biggest surprise was the discovery of perchlorate, an oxidizing chemical on Earth that is a possible energy source for microbes and a potentially valuable future resource for human explorers.

In August 2008, Phoenix completed its three-month mission studying Martian ice, soil and atmosphere. The lander worked for two additional months before reduced sunlight caused energy to become insufficient to keep the lander functioning. The solar-powered robot was not designed to survive the dark and cold conditions of a Martian arctic winter.

The University of Arizona, Tucson, operates the HiRISE camera, which was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colorado. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Littleton, Colorado, is the prime contractor for the project and built the spacecraft.

The Phoenix Mission was led by the University of Arizona, Tucson, on behalf of NASA. Project management of the mission was by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. Lockheed Martin Space Systems built the spacecraft.