Farewell Phoenix

•May 26, 2010 • Leave a Comment

A new image taken by the HiRISE camera onboard MRO shows that Phoenix has suffered severe damage during the martian winter, and won’t be phoning home again. It looks like one of its solar panel “wings” broke off due to the weight of the ice that built up on it, which means there’ll be no more images, no more signals, that’s it.

So, time for this blog to say a final fond farewell to Phoenix…

Farewell Phoenix


We listened and listened, straining our electronic ears,

Hoping against hope to hear a single, simple tone from you;

A whispered note phoned home against all the odds –

But heard nothing.

And now HiRISE has shown us why: sometime

In the martian winter, buried beneath a brutal crush

Of cold you folded in your fragile wings one final time

And, with tiny, hoarfrost-crusted heart beating feebly

In the fading light, you died.

Lazarus would not be rising after all.

Fitting that a creature forged and born in fire

Should end its days entombed in ice, but sad

For those of us who kept you company as you sat

Statue-still on Mars through those lonely

Polar months. No roving for you, no daily new views

Of mountains high and craters deep, no steep

Slopes to climb; your dinner plate feet did not creep

A single inch away from where they first set down

Upon the frosty, rocky ground.

But we still loved you.

Our memories of your candle-flame life

Are bright but bitter sweet: that first sight

Of water ice – scraped flakes of alien blue-white

Glinting in the shadows of a trench…

Oven doors refusing to open, stubborn as an ox,

Resisting all attempts to pry them apart…

Precious, priceless dirt dumped onto grilles,

Clumping like porridge when it should have

Poured through the wires like wine…

That one-in-a-billion shot of you caught flying

Over Heimdal, parachute trailing behind…

All ancient history now, all magic moments

Lost in Time. Sleep now, and wait for that far

Far future day when gloved hands lift you from your

Resting place and carry you to the Great

Museum of Mars, healing your snapped wing

And standing you, with pride, beside

The Vikings, Rovers and broken Beagle bits,

Where you belong.

© Stuart Atkinson 2010

Phoenix’s final chance to phone home…

•May 14, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I haven’t updated this blog for over a year because there’s been nothing to write about Phoenix, but I went online this morning to find that NASA has announced that it will be trying one last time (well, trying quite a few times, but for the last time, if you know what I mean) to contact Phoenix later this month.  Here’s the press release…


May 13, 2010


From May 17 to 21, NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter will conduct a fourth and final campaign to check on whether the Phoenix Mars Lander has come back to life.

During that period, Odyssey will listen for a signal from Phoenix during 61 flights over the lander’s site on far-northern Mars. The orbiter detected no transmission from the lander in earlier campaigns totaling 150 overflights in January, February and April.

In 2008, Phoenix completed its three-month mission studying Martian ice, soil and atmosphere. The lander worked for five months before reduced sunlight caused energy to become insufficient to keep the lander functioning. The solar-powered robot was not designed to survive through the dark and cold conditions of a Martian arctic winter. However, in case it did, NASA has used Odyssey to listen for the signals that Phoenix would transmit if abundant spring sunshine revived the lander.

Northern Mars will experience its maximum-sunshine day, the summer solstice, on May 12 (Eastern Time; May 13, Universal Time), so the sun will be higher in the sky above Phoenix during the fourth listening campaign than during any of the prior ones. Still, expectations of hearing from the lander remain low.

“To be thorough, we decided to conduct this final session around the time of the summer solstice, during the best thermal and power conditions for Phoenix,” said Chad Edwards, chief telecommunications engineer for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

The Phoenix mission is led by Principal Investigator Peter H. Smith of the University of Arizona, Tucson, with project management at JPL and development partnership with Lockheed Martin Space Systems. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, also manages the Odyssey project in an operational partnership with Lockheed Martin.

Guy Webster 818-354-6278
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.


So, Phoenix, this is it, your last chance to phone home. There have been quite a few attempts to make contact with Phoenix this year, but they have all come to nothing, and many people believe that Phoenix is dead and gone, either broken up inside because of the brutal cold, or maybe even left solar-panel “wingless” after its circular solar arrays snapped off and fell to the ground, succumbing to the weight of dry ice that accumulated on them over the long, harsh martian winter. Other people are more optimistic, but I personally think she’s long gone, and that Mars Odyssey will send back this message to Earth…

Phoenix has passed on! This lander is no more! She has ceased to be! She’s expired and gone to meet her maker! She’s a stiff! Bereft of life, she rests in peace! Her metabolic processes are now ‘istory! She’s off the twig! She’s kicked the bucket, shee’s shuffled off  this mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisibile!! THIS IS AN EX-LANDER!!”


If that’s the case, it will not be surprising, but it will be very sad. I have many, many happy memories of Phoenix, from the stomach-clenchingly exciting landing to the day the last pictures came back from the martian north pole – and I’m sure many other people do too. Anyway, we’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, if you’re a first time visitor to this blog, or if you’re not too familiar with the Phoenix mission, I hope you’ll go back to the very beginning of this blog and “catch up”. Phoenix had an amazing time on Mars, and all of us Phoenix fans back here on Earth had a wonderful – if frustrating at times! – time following her exploits. As you’ll see from the posts on this blog, Phoenix took amazing, beautiful images, and saw some wonderful things, and her place in history is assured.

Fingers crossed Odyssey hears something later this month… If she does that will be one of the biggest comeback/survival stories ever! 🙂

New pictures of Phoenix..!

•March 11, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Phoenix might have stopped sending back pictures of its landing site, up near the north pole of Mars, but that doesn’t mean we’ve heard the last of it, or that it’s not being watched. Last October the amazing HiRISE camera onboard NASA’s Mars reconaissance Orbiter was trained on the Phoenix lander, and some great images were taken of it, sitting on the frosty surface of Mars. I’ve cropped them, colourised some of them, and here they are. Please click on each one to bring up a full-size version.

It’s so great to see Phoenix again! Hope she’s enjoying her long, and well-earned, sleep…


If you look closely you’ll just be able to make out Phoenix at bottom left, the crash-mark of the heatshield top centre, and the backshell and parachute far right. Zoom in on the latter and you can see this…


That’s pretty amazing, but what does Phoenix itself look like when zoomed in on..?


That’s a fantastic image because, as Doug Ellison pointed out in a Twitter, you can actually see the central parts of Phoenix’s solar arrays. Unbelievable… 🙂

But I know what you really want – some colour! Let’s add that…


Wow… look, you can even see the lines connecting the parachute to the backshell…! But what about Phoenix..? Ok, here you go…


… and from a different colour set…


I feel a bit emotional seeing those images… Phoenix was such an exciting, breathless, race-against-time mission that seemed to go by in a flash. I miss it, a lot.

There are some BIG science results coming from Phoenix soon, so keep en eye out for those. In the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing Phoenix again. Always good to catch up with old friends, isn’t it? 🙂

A final farewell to Phoenix…

•December 2, 2008 • Leave a Comment


If death certificates were issued for spaceprobes when their missions ended, then Phoenix’s certificate was effectively written out several days ago, when the decision was finally – and I’m sure reluctantly – taken to stop listening for signals from the lander.

The last attempt to pick up a signal from Phoenix was made on Nov 29th, when the orbiting Odyssey spacecraft cocked an electronic ear towards the north pole and tried to hear something, anything from Phoenix. The attempt was unsuccessful, and there will be no more. This means that the last confirmed signal from Phoenix was detected on Nov 2nd, and the chances of anything more being heard are extremely small.

It makes sense to stop listening for any plaintive beeps and bleeps from Phoenix. The lander is now almost certainly thick with frost, its electronic innards chilled to their core, and it has basically frozen to death in the merciless and brutal martian cold. When the next images of the lander are taken by HiRISE I’m sure they’ll show it standing in an icy landscape, as lifeless as a statue.

And what of the chances that it might reawaken when Spring comes to Green Valley? Well, the chances aren’t good. That brutal cold will physically affect the lander, weakening and even breaking some of its fragile electronic circuits and components, and if enough frost and ice gathers on those fragile solar panel wings they might even snap off and fall to the ground, so you’d have to be an incredible optimist to believe that the “Lazarus Command” will bring Phoenix back to life. But hey, you never know. I’m sure they’ll try. It can’t hurt, can it?

But really, being sensible about it, that’s It. The Phoenix mission is over. It was a heck of a ride while it lasted, but everything ends.

Farewell Phoenix. Sleep well. You’ve earned it.

The day I met Phoenix…

•November 26, 2008 • 1 Comment

… kind of… 😉

I was lucky enough to visit and tour JPL recently, and was delighted to find a full-size replica of the lander there. What else was I supposed to do except pose beside it for a photo? 🙂


( I know, I know… if you were there you’d be smiling like a cheshire cat, but I hate having my pic taken, ok? )

So… seeing and standing next to that beautifully-crafted model really did bring home a) how big it is, b) how fragile-looking it is, and c) how aesthetically beautiful it is. With those big dragonfly wings it really does look like a robot insect of some kind, more than any other spacecraft I’ve ever seen. The robot arm looks too thin and fragile to even be able to move its own weight, never mind scratch and scrape away at the frigid surface of Mars…


…and all the antennae, aerials and struts on the top look ,ike they’d snap off if someone blew on them… but it all worked on Mars, wonderfully, and looking at that model gave me a new appreciation of just how successful the mission was.

It was hot at JPL, very hot in fact. Everyone was walking around in shirtsleeves and sweating in the bright Californian sunlight. Inside the hall where the Phoenix model stood, surrounded by fascinated and respectful onlookers, it was still very warm despite being air-conditioned, and felt like a hot summer’s day in the UK to this travelling Brit! It was odd to stand there looking at the model and comparing it with what the real thing is going through right now…

I know it’s still standing there, on the floor of Green Valley, probably now surrounded by frost-encrusted rocks, with its solar panels coated in a slowly-thickening crust of tinkling, twinkling ice crystals too… the sky above Phoenix darkens quickly now after a very short day, and any winds that waft across its deck carry with them stinging flakes of snow… the temperature has plunged now too, and if I was to magically transport myself to its side your landing site now would feel more like Narnia in the depths of the Snow Queen’s winter to me than the Arctic tundra it so closely resembles in those landing day photos…

Miss you, Phoenix… 😦


Phoenix’s last postcard…

•November 12, 2008 • Leave a Comment

The last red, green and blue filtered images of the surface of Mars taken by Phoenix were returned on Sol 151. I’ve combined them to make a colour frame, and then messed about with it enhanced and manipulated it to create a final “postcard”. So this, then, is Phoenix’s final view of the surface of Mars – or at least my version of it… Click on the image below to see the full size version… and enjoy… come on, let’s celebrate Phoenix’s  brief mayfly life on Mars, and not mourn it! 🙂


Farewell Phoenix…

•November 11, 2008 • Leave a Comment


It’s official – the historic Phoenix mission to the north pole of Mars is over. There has been no word from Phoenix since around Nov 2nd, and with temperatures dropping, darkness descending and Phoenix showing no signs of “phoning home”, NASA has declared the mission complete, and has said they don’t expect to hear from the lander again; there seems very little chance that the “lazarus” command signal could wake the lander up again in spring, because by then the terrible cold will have caused serious damage to its systems and circuitry, literally cracking and shattering its circuit boards and computer hardware, so we have heard our last from Phoenix. No more pictures of dust devils, frost or sunrises; no more animations of the telltale thrupping dementedly from side to side, or of clouds scudding across the sky; no more close-ups of ice beneath the lander’s belly… that’s all folks. Not only has the Fat Lady sung, she’s left the stage, the lights have been turned off and the doors have been locked.

But Phoenix will live on, in her data. Now the scientists will really start to analyse all the science the lander returned during her 5 months on Mars. There will be more announcements made, more press conferences held, more discoveries to be announced. Perhaps there’s proof hiding in the data somewhere that Phoenix did actually find organics in the martian soil… or there’s evidence that the landing site was indeed once habitable. We’ll have to wait and see – and that’s what science, especially planetary science, is all about: waiting and seeing.

This isn’t my last post on Phoenix, not by a long way. But it seems appropriate to end today with the image I’ve put at the top of this post. You’ll see a line of what looks like binary code at the bottom there… this is the last “message” sent back by Phoenix via its incredibly popular Twitter site. What does it say? Well, if you put it into a binary translation website you get a single word:


Aye. Phoenix certainly was that.

So, Farewell Phoenix. We’ll miss you, but we won’t forget you! 🙂


•November 10, 2008 • Leave a Comment

There’s a NASA press teleconference going on right now, and the team behind the Phoenix lander has just announced that Phoenix hasn’t been heard of since last Wednesday, and they have declared “End of Mission Operations”, meaning Phoenix has gone to sleep and isn’t expected to wake up again. Sad news, but it was always going to come…

More on this soon…


•November 5, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I’ve just noticed that this blog has now had over 9,000 visits… that’s crazy, really! A huge THANK YOU to you, whether you’re someone who stops by regularly, or someone who has only been here a couple of times. Hope you enjoy the pictures!

Preparing To Sleep…

•November 3, 2008 • 1 Comment

Although obviously I hope it isn’t the case, this might well end up being my “epitaph” or tribute to Phoenix, what with her energy problems and the increasingly-hostile conditions at her landing site. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that she can survive to at least send back a few more sols’ worth of pictures before she falls silent forever…




My once-fierce flames are failing now:

Fading as the fleeing Sun fades,

And I can barely feel

Their warmth as I stand here,

On Barsoom’s epic Polar Plain,

Staring over a sea of ancient stones,

My very bones chilled by Mars’ aching cold

as my butterfly-brief life ebbs away… 


Once I stood proud beneath this great

Dome of a sky. Now my whole body shakes

In fear, for the hungry wolves of winter

Are drawing near. I hear their howling

on the icy wind, see their frost-flecked eyes

staring at me from the cruel dark,

proof that Death is stalking me now,

creeping forwards on all fours, edging a little closer

every time I blink… I don’t think

I can stay awake much longer…


Dying in this fading, hoar-frost half light

I cannot help but wonder through the night

Have I made you proud of me? Have I achieved

All you hoped and dreamed I would? Whenever I could

I reached out with my claw and scraped it red and raw

Against the ice I came to find. But my craw

Remains as dry tosol as it was when I arrived,

My hungry TEGA stomachs grumble still,

Filled not with precious proof that Mars was once

A home for life but clogged with cloying dirt

That rattles inside me mockingly

As the polar wind blows through my body

Like a ghost – a reminder I am already in my grave…


And now, as the sullen sun sets again I start

To hear and see strange things: is that the yapping

And yipping of dogs or just the cracking

Of my slowly splintering wings?

On the far horizon there- a ragged line of men

In frozen-fur hoods and heavy, dragging boots?

I see their birds nest beards clotted with frost

As they heave heir creaking sleds, crump-crumping through

The snow – no… no… they are just dust devils

Whirling past, taking one last pitying look

At the alien that fell out of their sky all those months

Ago, uninvited, and now lies close to death…


And I’m sure there is no ghostly figure

Standing by my side, and their frostbitten hand

– Cocooned inside a seal-fur glove –

Is not really resting on my shoulder, but as I shiver

Uncontrollably I can half believe I hear

The voice of Shackleton – no stranger

To ice and cold – speaking soft into my ear…


I believe it is in our nature to explore, to reach out

into the unknown. The only true failure… would be not to explore at all.”


… and with those words I lay my heavy head

down upon the frosty ground, to the sound

of my own heartbeat slowing down,

and close my tired eyes one final time.

The last thing I see: a spark of pure blue light

Shining in the west, a blessed sight,

Burning with the gentle glow of six billion curious souls.

Some will remember me, I hope, and should your

restless eyes gaze at the starry sky and see Ares

Glinting ‘bove the trees then think of me,

And cast your mind back to these golden

Glorious Days, when a Phoenix flew to Mars..!


© Stuart Atkinson 2008