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Twilight Embers: Phoenix Mars Mission Ends November 12, 2008

Posted by Nick Azer in : Mars, NASA, Phoenix lander, rover, Spirit and Opportunity , add a comment

Months after it was originally anticipated to fall silent, and after discovering both ice and falling snow on Mars, the Phoenix lander has lost contact, and the mission has been declared completed.

Lasting five months, the lander was originally expected to last just 90 sols (martian days), until September 30th; the last communciation was on November 2nd.
A Martian sunrise in late August, marking the oncoming of the winter that eventually doomed the lander. [Photo from UniverseToday.com by way of NASA/JLP/UA)

The unexpected durability of the lander could be promising for the efforts of future landers and rovers, including lunar ones.

Check out the official NASA media page on Phoenix for videos recapping the mission.

A related note: The Mars explroation rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are still kickin’, after nearly five years (more than seventeen times longer than expected).

Considering how much longer ‘than expected’ both the Phoenix and the twin rovers have lasted, could it also happen that completion of lunar bases (being built by, of course, robots) will come much faster ‘than expected’ (with their construction workers potentially proving much hardier and productive workers than predicted)?

Eternal Flame? Phoenix Lander Lasting Longer Than Expected October 6, 2008

Posted by Nick Azer in : Base Race, Google Lunar X Prize, Helium-3, Integration, Phoenix lander, robotics, rover , add a comment

NASA’s robotic Mars lander, Phoenix, made news recently as it was snowed on. Let the Martian snowmen and snowball fights commence.

But, a subplot to this event and just as notable in the long run, is that the Phoenix lander has lasted much longer than anticipated.

Originally expected to last 90 Martian days (also known as “sols”; Martian hours, minutes, and seconds are 2.7% longer than Earth ones), the lander has operated for 120+. The Martian winter is settling in, and with the lander being at a pole, that means a long, cold dark and the probable end of the lander’s lifespan.

Considering that everything from the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize up through Helium-3 mining and moon base surveying and construction will be completed by similar robotic rovers and other heroic robots, the fact that as high-profile a rover as the Phoenix has proven much more durable than anticipated is great news for any and all forthcoming efforts to integrate, and then colonize the Moon.

Rovers proving more durable means that everything on Luna will get explored, built on, and mined that much faster and more efficiently (and more efficiency itself speeds things up again by freeing up R+D, etc. cash). If rovers and other equipment prove to consistently outperform expectations like the Phoenix has, then the pace of the Moon’s integration into our Earthbound society is going to get really wild.

The Phoenix lander’s perserverance has shone a bright light of promise into the future of robotic Martian, Lunar, and other missions.

Ice, Ice, Baby (News) June 21, 2008

Posted by Nick Azer in : Current News, Phoenix lander, Polar ice , 1 comment so far

Right up there as a big ol’ classic red headline on Drudge Report today was the news that NASA has confirmed that the Phoenix lander on Mars has turned up ice.

That may become one of the more legendary space photos ever taken. It turns out that there’s apprently a whole sheet of ice right there under that dirt; e.g., as that linked article quotes Peter Smith:

“If you got a giant broom and swept if off, it’s a big ice sheet.”
-Peter Smith, Phoenix Principal Investigator, of the
University of Arizona, Tucson

The existence of Lunar Ice is still doubtful, but the confirmation of ice on Mars shines a little more possibility into its existence. Even without ice on the moon, at the very least we now know we can ship water back to there from Mars, unorthodox as that may seem

Picture of the Week: Who Needs Video May 31, 2008

Posted by Nick Azer in : Google Lunar X Prize, Mars, Mooncast, Phoenix lander, Picture of the Week , add a comment

The above is an animated GIF from NASA’a Phoenix Lander, brought to you from the lovely locale of Mars. A robotic arm deploying may not always the most exciting thing in the world–or, err, solar system?–, but coming straight from another planet, it’s pretty neat. (For a bunch more images from the lander, see here).

Part of the Google Lunar X Prize requirements for a qualifying victory are to send back images and data (including HD video) from the Moon; what they call a “Mooncast“.

MOONCAST: The Mooncast consists of digital data that must be collected and transmitted to the Earth composed of the following:
• High resolution 360º panoramic photographs taken on the surface of the Moon;
• Self portraits of the rover taken on the surface of the Moon;
• Near-real time videos showing the craft’s journey along the lunar surface;
• High Definition (HD) video;
• Transmission of a cached set of data, loaded on the craft before launch (e.g. first email from the Moon).
Teams will be required to send a Mooncast detailing their arrival on the lunar surface, and a second Mooncast that provides imagery and video of their journey roaming the lunar surface. All told, the Mooncasts will represent approximately a Gigabyte of stunning content returned to the Earth.”

I note that they actually require a self-portrait of the rover in all of that. So, little things like that GIF above are going to be big things for many folks in the coming years :)

A Phoenix + Ice = ? May 28, 2008

Posted by Nick Azer in : areology, Lunar Prospector, Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter, Lunar Research Institute, Mars, Phoenix lander, Polar ice , add a comment

Three days ago (May 25th), NASA’s Phoenix lander made it safely to the surface of Mars; specifically, the north polar region (where water ice was discovered to be chillin’ back in 2005).

Like the features of the Moon, the north polar region of Mars has a Latin name: Planeum Borem (insert “Bore ‘em” joke/pun here), which means simply ‘The Northern Plain”. Below is a mosaic of this northern region from, appropiately enough, the Viking spacecraft:

You’re probably thinking “Yeah, NASA and all, but what’s this got to do with colonization of the Moon?”

Well, as far as having water at the poles, Mars may have company. The key word, though, seems to be “may“: efforts such as NASA’s Lunar Prospector and Europe’s SMART-1 have not turned up any clear evidence. Third time may be the charm, though (or at least that’s NASA’s idea): the Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter (LRO; launching November 24th, 2008) has a primary goal of finding water, along with even more critical research regarding lunar landing sites and radiation study.

As that Space.com AP article above notes, though:

“…the only way to know for sure is to send a human or robot. ‘You’ve got to go down and stick your finger in it, so to speak,’ he [Alan Binder, the director of the Lunar Research Institute] said.”

With Mars, that obviously seems to be their plan. While Mars has the possibility of past life tied to its water, the main motivation to discover water on the Moon is to plan for the possibility of future life (though water could simply be imported, especially if a space elevator is around to reduce the cost of getting it off Earth).

As the 6-month Phoenix surface mission unfolds, it should be interesting to see what lessons can be gleaned from it for similar poking around on the Moon.