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  • Hello Spacecraft? Are You Listening?
    Posted by Heather Goss 2:01 AM on May 26, 2010

    NASA has spent the better part of the month trying to get in touch with a handful of planetary space missions, to varying degrees of success.  Yesterday, NASA declared that the Phoenix Mars Lander mission was officially over.  The rover initially went silent just after the Mars winter took hold in November 2008.  The team at JPL began attempts to hear signals from the icy rover early in 2010 as warmer weather arrived, but they have proved futile. 

    Phoenix was largely a successful mission since it landed in Mars' northern hemisphere in May 2008.  It was designed to dig through soil and in just a couple months confirmed the existence of underground water, as well as percholate, a chemical that is food for some microbes on Earth, but poison for others, leaving astrobiologists plenty of ambiguous findings to continue researching.  The lander operated two months longer than its original mission, ending with a "triumphant" farewell to its followers on Earth.  No one really expected to hear from Phoenix again, but NASA sent Mars Odyssey overhead to listen for signs of life in January 2010, followed by three more tries, the last ending May 21.  Photographs just returned from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (below) show the lander covered in ice and significant damage to the solar panels.

    blog post photo
    Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

    Meanwhile, a "flipped bit" was tripping up the Voyager 2 team.  Engineers at JPL first noticed a shift in the data pattern returned on April 22, and put the spacecraft into an "engineering mode" on May 6 so they could troubleshoot the problem.  Voyager 2 is currently 8.6 billion miles from Earth, so transmissions take almost 13 hours each way, making testing all the more difficult.  The team identified the flipped bit in the spacecraft's memory on May 17 and were able to fix the problem and successfully reset Voyager's computer.  On May 23, scientists received new data that showed the computers were now properly formatted.  Over the next week, JPL will test the rest of Voyager's scientific instruments.  Voyager 2 and its twin, Voyager 1, have traveled further than any other manmade objects; they're on track to reach the edge of our solar system and enter interstellar space in just about five years.

    Also on a trip out into deep space, but not quite as far as the Voyagers, is the New Horizons spacecraft.  This mission, launched in 2006, is just over halfway to its target, Pluto, followed by a swing over to the Kuiper Belt.  With such a long trip, New Horizons spends much of its time in sleep mode, when it's not passing by interesting landscape, like Jupiter in 2007.  Today, however, the engineers nudged the spacecraft awake for a full nine weeks of maintenance testing.  A ground command error delayed the wake-up call this morning, but engineers were able to fix the issue and heard back from a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed New Horizons just before 8 p.m. EDT tonight.   New Horizons is currently 1.5 billion miles from Earth and expected to reach Pluto in July 2015.

    Tags: os99, new-horizons, voyager, phoenix, nasa

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