York-led experiments yield great results as Mars-Phoenix mission ends

NASA and the University of Arizona announced yesterday the conclusion of the Mars-Phoenix mission, officially wrapping up five months of experiments by Canada’s science team, led by York University.

"The mission has been a success. We have produced a gold mine of data, and now we look forward to publishing the results – after some rest," said Jim Whiteway (left), lead scientist for the Canadian-supplied meteorological station on Phoenix.

The mission included milestones such as the discovery of water-ice in the Martian soil and the Canadian discovery of snow falling from clouds in Mars’ atmosphere. In late September, the Canadian-built laser instrument aboard Phoenix detected snow from clouds approximately four kilometres above the spacecraft’s landing site. Data showed the snow vaporizing before reaching the ground.

As anticipated, seasonal decline in sunshine at the robot’s arctic landing site is not providing enough sunlight for the solar arrays to collect the power necessary to charge batteries that operate the lander’s instruments. Mission engineers last received a signal from the lander on Nov. 2.

The Canadian science team also took daily weather readings from Mars, measuring temperature, pressure and wind speed. (See YFileMay 28.)

Right: The Mars-Phoenix lander has run out of power and will soon become encased in ice. Image courtesy of NASA.

Since landing on Mars on May 25, Phoenix has advanced the goal of studying whether the Martian arctic environment has ever been favourable for microbes. Additional findings include documenting a mildly alkaline soil environment unlike any found by earlier Mars missions; finding small concentrations of salts that could be nutrients for life; discovering perchlorate salt, which has implications for ice and soil properties; and finding calcium carbonate, a marker of effects of liquid water.

The lander’s meteorological component is a partnership between York University and the University of Alberta, Dalhousie University, the University of Aarhus (Denmark), the Finnish Meteorological Institute, MDA Space Missions and Optech Inc., with $37 million in funding from the Canadian Space Agency. The mission is a joint project of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories and the University of Arizona.

For more on the Mars-Phoenix lander, see the May 26, May 30 and  Aug. 15 issues of YFile.