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Mars lander has probably carked it, says NASA

Phoenix robot won't rise again

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The Phoenix robot lander, situated in the arctic dune seas of Mars, has ceased communicating and NASA does not expect to hear from it again. The onset of autumn in the chilly polar plains of the Red Planet has, as was expected, meant that the probe's solar panels can no longer supply sufficient power to keep it running.

Mission engineers received a final signal from the lander on 2 November. Space-agency robo probe chiefs said that on top of shorter daylight, Phoenix has had to deal with dustier skies, more clouds and colder temperatures as autumn sets in on the dune seas of the Vastitas Borealis. However, Phoenix did well, lasting much longer than it had been expected to.

The project team will be listening carefully during the next few weeks to hear if Phoenix revives and phones home. However, engineers now believe that is unlikely because of the worsening weather conditions on Mars. "The spacecraft's work has ended," according to NASA, but the task of analysing the data it provided has only just begun.

"Phoenix has given us some surprises, and I'm confident we will be pulling more gems from this trove of data for years to come," said Peter Smith, a Phoenix brainbox working at the University of Arizona.

Phoenix was launched on 4 Aug 2007 and landed 25 May 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". It confirmed the presence of water-ice in the Martian ground, and cameras also returned more than 25,000 pictures. These included snaps from "near the atomic level using the first atomic force microscope ever used outside Earth".

The probe, in its last weeks of operational service, also detected snow falling from Martian clouds, and was the subject of a mild internet kerfuffle which was resolved with the news that the best form of life for existence on Mars would be Terry Pratchett-style dragons with erratically explosive bowel chemistry.

"Phoenix not only met the tremendous challenge of landing safely, it accomplished scientific investigations on 149 of its 152 Martian days as a result of dedicated work by a talented team," said Phoenix chief Barry Goldstein of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. ®

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