Phoenix Team Still At Work As Anniversary Approaches

May 20, 2009 -- It has been nearly one year since NASA's Phoenix Mars Mission successfully landed on the polar region of Mars on May 25, 2008, but the science team remains hard at work.

Principal investigator Peter Smith and a portion of the Phoenix team continues to work at the Science Operations Center in Tucson, Ariz., where the entire science team began their journey last summer. Three other laboratories remain active as Phoenix's Extended Mission Operations continue.

William Boynton and the rest of the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer, or TEGA, team work at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson. They are currently attempting to recreate Martian data using different candidate minerals in the samples.

Doug Ming is conducting complementary TEGA instrument tests using his laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Sam Kounaves of Tufts University is attempting to recreate Martian chemistry experiments in his laboratory with the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer, or MECA, instrument.

After being the first Mars mission to successfully "touch" the planet's polar region last May, the science team spent the next five months meeting each day to discuss past, current and upcoming activity. Since the landed mission officially ended last November, the scientists have met via teleconference each Wednesday to discuss ongoing results from analyzing the data gathered last summer.

"Some of the signals the spacecraft returned are capable of being interpreted several different ways," Smith said. "Laboratory tests and discussions are crucial in order to finalize our results."

Amidst the team's continuing scientific discussion, four science papers are currently under review at Science, and 26 more papers are being readied for submittal to the Journal of Geophysical Reasearch-Planets.

The science team will attempt communication with the spacecraft in October of this year, but a response from Mars is unlikely.

"Martian winters are very cold and the spacecraft is not designed to withstand such a harsh climate," Smith said.

The spacecraft was tested at minus 55 degrees Celsius (minus 67 degrees Fahrenheit), but a winter on Mars averages about minus 126 degrees Celsius (minus 195 degrees Fahrenheit).

"There's no reason to think that we'll hear back from the spacecraft," Smith said. "But it is the Phoenix mission, after all. Maybe it will come back."

Phoenix project manager Barry Goldstein at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said the team will attempt contact with the lander several times a day for several days in October.

"We will look for a response," Goldstein said. "Should we see anything, that will let us know that the vehicle is alive and when we can contact it to gain control."

If the Phoenix lander does respond later this year, Smith said most of its components would still be functional.

Planetary Data System release

Last month, NASA's Planetary Data System announced the third and final release of data from the mission, including raw and derived data products from Sols (Martian days) 91 through 152, or July 27 through Oct. 29, 2008.

Data for imaging instruments can be viewed at the imaging node site. The release also includes atmosphere and geoscience data.

The site offers a search function for browsing specific Sol summary data using the Phoenix Analyst's Notebook. The site also offers a subscription feature to keep up to date with NASA's Planetary Data System.

For media inquiries and assistance, please contact Guy Webster or Rhea Borja at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory News Office.