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11/11/2008
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Phoenix Mars Lander Shuts Down

NASA's visitor to the Red Planet is unlikely to phone home again.

NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander has shut down, but its legacy will live on as scientists sift through its data and findings.

"Phoenix has given us some surprises, and I'm confident we will be pulling more gems from this trove of data for years to come," Phoenix principal investigator Peter Smith, of the University of Arizona in Tucson, said in a statement.

NASA reported Monday that the Phoenix Mars Lander sent its last signal Nov. 2. The lander ran out of power because diminishing sunshine on its Martian arctic landing site was not enough to charge its solar arrays. Shorter days, dust, clouds, and cooler temperatures have descended on the site with the approach of autumn.

NASA expected the loss of power, and the spacecraft operated for more than five months, which is longer than the three months scientists and engineers anticipated.

"Phoenix not only met the tremendous challenge of landing safely, it accomplished scientific investigations on 149 of its 152 Martian days as a result of dedicated work by a talented team," said Barry Goldstein, Phoenix's project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The Phoenix landed May 25, then dug soil from the surface of Mars, scooped it up, baked it, and "sniffed" and "tasted" the soil to determine its components. It also found evidence of water and ice beneath the surface. NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter first detected the possible presence of water from a distance in 2002.

Phoenix's cameras delivered more than 25,000 pictures, from wide landscape shots to images with resolutions close to the atomic level taken by the first atomic force microscope ever used outside Earth.

The information that Phoenix collected could help scientists determine whether there was ever life on Mars, most likely in the form of microbes.

"Phoenix provided an important step to spur the hope that we can show Mars was once habitable and possibly supported life," Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. "Phoenix was supported by orbiting NASA spacecraft providing communications relay while producing their own fascinating science. With the upcoming launch of the Mars Science Laboratory, the Mars Program never sleeps."

The Phoenix also uncovered a never-before-discovered mildly alkaline soil; small concentrations of salt, a nutrient that supports life; as well as perchlorate salt and calcium carbonate, which give clues about water, ice, and soil conditions on Mars. It found two types of ice deposits, captured images of snowfall, and recorded temperatures, pressure, humidity, wind, haze, clouds, frost, and whirlwinds, NASA said.

The Phoenix team will continue to evaluate the data and listen for calls from the lander, although they doubt weather conditions will allow the spacecraft to regain power.

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