Long-Silent Mars Lander Appears to Be Officially Lost
Stages in the seasonal disappearance of surface ice from the ground around the Phoenix Mars Lander are visible in these images taken on Feb. 8, 2010, (left) and Feb. 25, 2010, during springtime on northern Mars, by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

It looks like it really is the end for NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander, which spent five months digging in the Martian arctic before succumbing to the icy winter conditions that set in at the end of its mission.

The third and final attempt to listen for any signs of survival from the lander, conducted last week, didn't turn up a peep.

Phoenix landed on Mars on May 25, 2008, and operated successfully in the Martian arctic for about two months longer than its planned three-month mission, which confirmed the presence of water ice under the Martian surface. But once the sun and temperatures dropped and winter set in, the spacecraft didn't have enough power to keep going. The lander went silent in November 2008.

Phoenix was not designed to withstand the extremely low temperatures and the ice load of the Martian arctic winter. But in the unlikely event that the lander's components survived and the spacecraft received enough energy from the rising spring sun, mission managers planned on listening for any signals that Phoenix was waking itself up.

Two attempts at listening were conducted by NASA's Mars Odyssey Orbiter in January and February, neither of which turned up any signals.

The listening flyovers conducted last week were the third and final attempts planned by NASA. These orbits also turned up no signals from the lander, which seems to be gone for good.

"In the unlikely event that Phoenix had survived the harsh Martian arctic winter and been able to achieve a power-positive state with the return of continuous sunshine, there is a very high likelihood that one or more of these 60 overflights would have overlapped with a transmission attempt by the lander," said Chad Edwards, chief telecommunications engineer for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

"This was the last of our three planned Phoenix search campaigns. The Mars program will evaluate the results in hand to assess whether further action is warranted," Edwards said.