The sun is sinking rapidly below the horizon, temperatures are plummeting in the gathering darkness, snow is falling and ice begins to embalm everything exposed to the extremes of winter. The Martian winter.
And on the arctic plains of the red planet, Phoenix is dead.
As I was facing the final editorial deadline for the book, back in early June, one of the greatest frustrations was not being able to continue the story of the Phoenix Lander which had just arrived on Mars – it was one of those “at the time of writing” comments which had to be left at that. Since then, the Phoenix has joined, if not exceeded, the success of its comfort-loving colleagues, the Mars Rovers, which continue to trundle around the tropics. Phoenix is a hardy robotic field geologist which has worked diligently and delivered extraordinary science results – it has, deservedly, just won recognition from Popular Science magazine as an innovation worthy of the publication's "Best of What's New" Grand Award in the aviation and space category.
For much longer than was originally thought feasible, Phoenix has been scraping, digging, collecting, sorting, imaging, and analysing, with the most sophisticated laboratory on the planet, the sand (and dust, and ice) of Mars. It discovered water-ice in different forms. It found salts and calcium carbonate which support the case for liquid water existing on Mars, possibly relatively recently. It didn’t find little green men or even little green microbes, but it did show that some of ingredients necessary for the recipe of life are there.
Phoenix observed its field area on all scales, recording the weather (dust storms, clouds and falling snow), the landscape, patterned in a way that is eerily evocative of our own Arctic tundra – and sand grains. Peering down its microscope, Phoenix recorded the grains in this image. About one-tenth of a millimeter across, these are the same minerals that make up rocks on Earth – and the rest of the universe. The iron content and weathering provide the rust-red color of the planet and its soil and some of the grains are magnetic.
The hard science of analyzing all of the results that Phoenix sent back will continue for years, but sometimes we just need to step back in wonder – this is a picture of microscopic sand grains on a planet a hundred million kilometers away.
Of course, by our standards, Mars is never balmy, but by now night time temperatures are expected to plummet to -184 F (-120 C). The ice that Phoenix has watched encroaching is still made of water, but the cold will be such that the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will soon freeze, encasing if not entombing the lander. There is instrumentation on board that is designed to jump start Phoenix if, by any chance, it lives up to its name and resurrects itself next summer. But that chance is remote. For now we should just celebrate the remarkable life of this extraordinary field geologist.
[These images are courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University/ Imperial College London. The Phoenix mission is another example of global collaboration. See NASA and University of Arizona for your own journey.]