Sunday, November 16, 2008

Farewell, Phoenix

I'm a few days late on this, but I wanted to mark what appears to be the end of the NASA Phoenix Mars lander's successful mission.

Launched Aug. 4, 2007, Phoenix landed May 25, 2008, farther north than any previous spacecraft to land on the Martian surface. The lander dug, scooped, baked, sniffed and tasted the Red Planet's soil. Among early results, it verified the presence of water-ice in the Martian subsurface, which NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter first detected remotely in 2002. Phoenix's cameras also returned more than 25,000 pictures from sweeping vistas to near the atomic level using the first atomic force microscope ever used outside Earth.
The Martian Winter has descended on the vast northern plains of Mars, with its bitterly cold temperatures and dwindling supply of power-generating sunshine. Phoenix recently sent what will likely be its final transmission before going quietly into that good night. It now sits as one more lonely monument to the inventiveness and curiosity of the human species, as we cast our senses skyward in search of our origins and our destiny.

Next up is the terribly exciting Mars Science Laboratory, a relatively gargantuan rover, which will use its plutonium power cell to range farther and dig deeper than any of its predecessors. Launch is scheduled for Fall of 2009, with arrival in 2010. This beast will be empowered to do some serious science, and woe betide any stubborn stones which get in its way. This fairly large video captures some of the promise and poetry which awaits us on this mission.

For now, though, I for one have raised a glass to the short but productive life of a Phoenix which is highly unlikely to rise from its own ashes. It may have gone silent forever, but its voice has added to a trove of data which may one day help to rescue Humanity itself from ultimate stagnation and death at the bottom of our ancestral gravity well.

Sleep now, Phoenix. You have amply earned your rest and our gratitude.

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