Requiem for a Robot: Mars Probe Dies
November 10, 2008 9:52 AM
Phoenix Mars Lander, the plucky little ship that was sent to land in the Martian Arctic in May, has fallen silent.
A source at NASA confirmed it this afternoon, and mission managers talked about it at a teleconference. In the frozen twilight (-140 degrees F) of autumn on Mars, its solar panels could no longer gather enough power to recharge its batteries. This was expected. The mission was planned to last three months; it kept going for five.
“It’s rather tough living up north of the Arctic Circle, and we knew the end was coming,” said Barry Goldstein, the mission manager. “It’s been a great mission.”
The ship sent its last signal on November 2. Engineers programmed two ships in Martian orbit to listen for signals as they passed over the landing site every two hours, but in addition to the cold and diminishing sunlight, the lander’s solar panels had apparently been coated in red dust by a sandstorm on Mars.
Controllers say they will keep listening for about three more weeks, but they say they will be surprised if they hear anything more.
Phoenix confirmed what scientists suspected but had not seen until now, that there was water ice, in large quantities, just beneath the Martian soil. The ship’s digging arm scraped away enough dirt to expose the ice, and then its cameras showed it sublimating — vaporizing — in the thin Martian air.
“Phoenix has been an excellent exploration into uncharted territory,” said Doug McCuistion, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. “Phoenix provided an important step to spur the hope that we can show Mars was once habitable and possibly supported life.”
The probe did not settle questions of whether there could be liquid water in the Martian soil And it had some trouble analyzing soil samples for evidence of organic molecules, the building blocks of life. The total cost of the project, NASA said, was about $475 million in the seven years since the mission was proposed.
Over at Wired, knowing this day would come, Alexis Madrigal and his cohorts decided to sponsor an epitaph contest — and they struck a nerve. We humans seem to like our robots. More than 900 people sent in entries. A lot of them are funny, some are touching, and with few exceptions they’re very clever. Almost nobody wrote, “Here lies the Phoenix Mars Lander….”
The winning entry, by readers’ vote, came from a South African man named Graham Vosloo: “Veni, vidi, fodi. (I came, I saw, I dug).” Readers also liked, “So long and thanks for all the ice,” and “It is enough for me. But for you, I plead: go farther, still.”
The entire list has been posted as a Google spreadsheet; find it here
. “I was a better use of your tax dollars than a bank bailout,” wrote one wag. You may also like “DO NOT DISASSEMBLE.”
Most of the entries are in the first person, and all are under 140 characters — the limit inspired by the Twitter page the lander kept. (Open secret: the page was actually kept up by Veronica McGregor, the news chief at JPL.)
One person wrote: “If Found, Please Return:
First Star on the Right…
Straight On Until Morning.”
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ from ABC news Ned Potter.
Poor Yorick we knew him well….