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MRO image shows dust covering Phoenix landing site

This animation blinks between two images of NASA’s Mars Phoenix Lander hardware around the mission’s 2008 landing site on far-northern Mars. By late 2017, dust obscures much of what was visible two months after the landing. The lander is near the top; the back shell and parachute near the bottom. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

An image of the 2008 Phoenix Mars landing site taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) nearly a decade after it touched down on the dusty plains of the Red Planet reveals dust has covered much of the site.

Two MRO images of Phoenix‘s landing site near the Martian north pole were taken by the orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), one on July 20, 2008, two months after the probe landed on May 25, 2008, and the other on December 21, 2017.

Mars Phoenix Lander image credit NASA

Image Credit: NASA

Both images feature the region at approximately 68 degrees north in latitude and 234 degrees east in longitude, approximately and are 984 feet (300 meters) in diameter, with the same levels and angles of illumination. The pictures were taken during Mars’s northern hemisphere summer, with an interval of about five Martian years.

The two images were combined to create a blink animation that flips back and forth between them (see above). Three dark patches can be seen in the 2008 photo; these were created when the probe landed and displaced surface dust.

Most of the dark patches visible in the earlier image are covered with dust in the 2017 photograph. Both the lander and heat shield impact are visible as dark spots in the first image. These, along with Phoenix‘s back shell and parachute, are now covered by dust.

Wind on Mars’s surface has moved the parachute from its original landing position slightly toward the east.

During its three-month mission, Phoenix studied the area’s atmosphere, ice, as well as the soil that surrounded the landing site. The lander continued functioning for an additional two months.

Its most significant findings included confirmation that ice is present in Mars’ surface soil, locating mineral deposits that indicate temperatures in the area occasionally rise above freezing, and viewing snow falling onto the Martian surface.

Powered by solar panels, the lander was unable to get sufficient sunlight to power itself as Mars’s northern hemisphere summer turned to autumn.

Not designed to survive the darkness and cold of a Martian winter, the lander last communicated with Earth in November of 2008.

In the slim hope the lander could be revived when spring came back to Mars’s northern hemisphere, NASA equipped it with an energy-saving mechanism, which scientists hoped would preserve enough power for it to awaken once sufficient sunlight became available again.

However, a listening campaign using the Mars Odyssey orbiter failed to detect any radio signals from Phoenix when spring arrived in January 2010. Pictures taken from orbit showed its solar panels had collapsed from the weight of winter ice buildup.

The Mars Phoenix Lander lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 17 atop a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket on Aug. 4, 2007 and was built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems.





Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.

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