Illustration for article titled Good Night, Sweet Phoenix

Five months ago, it landed on the Martian surface — and into our hearts. It gave us soil analysis data, photos of the sky from the red planet, and even hope of extraterrestrial life. Now, with its power deteriorating, its sunlight exposure shrinking, and Martian temperatures dropping to almost -100°C, the Phoenix lander's time may be up. Project manager Barry Goldstein admitted "we're towards the end," and Phoenix even bid us a fond goodbye on its Twitter page. But that's the charm of robots; they never truly die. Phoenix might not literally rise from the ashes, but you can make sure its spirit never leaves you.Pictured above in all of its youthful glory, this hardworking machine has more than paid its dues. Originally, the Phoenix mission was supposed to last just 90 days. It has fulfilled that goal and then some, remaining in operation for 125 sols (that's 128 days for you Earthlings). Its funding was extended to last through mid-November; during their attempts to squeeze out more time from the lander, mission engineers came up against vicious Martian weather — and the trouble began. On Tuesday, NASA announced that they planned a gradual shutdown of four of Phoenix's heaters. This was an effort to keep the camera and basic meteorological data collection running for as long as possible; with the frequent dust storms and the changing seasons at the polar landing site, Phoenix hasn't been able to collect much solar power. Mission engineers tried to send commands to the lander, only to find that Phoenix (its battery power almost gone) had entered its safe mode. It was hours more of waiting before Phoenix woke up and communication returned. As of Thursday, engineers are still assessing the lander's condition, but Goldstein pointed out that "when the vehicle is in its last days, it will go through [safe] mode erratically. There's nothing we can do about it." Those last days have no doubt arrived. If you're feeling choked up with sentiment, you should let some of it out at Wired, where they're having an Phoenix epitaph contest with official mission gear for prizes. And you can spend a couple of hours in memoriam, flipping through all the fascinating images that the intrepid lander has collected in its five months of life. A farewell bonfire wouldn't be out of place, either. Phoenix itself does not despair at its demise — check out this optimistic update from the NASA-operated Twitter page:

Take care of that beautiful blue marble out there in space, our home planet. I'll be keeping an eye from here. Space exploration FTW!


Space exploration FTW, indeed. Phoenix faces final curtain [Nature News] Phoenix Mission Status Report, 10.30.08 [NASA]


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