When the Phoenix Mars Lander successfully touched down on the Martian surface in May 2008, it was widely expected that it would last a maximum of three months in the harsh conditions. Like other missions, however, Phoenix surprised by continuing to conduct experiments and make discoveries beyond its expiration date.
In November 2008, scientists finally lost all contact with the lander — something largely attributed to the rapidly dropping temperatures on the planet's surface. While Phoenix was built to withstand temps of minus 67 degrees Fahrenheit, the actual Martian winters can get as cold as minus 195 degrees F!
For the sake of science (and a mix of curiosity), NASA is next month going to attempt to revive Phoenix. The odds of anything happening are fairly remote, but Peter Smith, Phoenix principal investigator at the Lunar and Planetary Lab at the University of Arizona in Tucson, is crossing his fingers anyways.
"We start listening in January for signals from our lander," said Smith. "Our engineering team is quite curious to see how resilient the electronic systems are to the extreme cold of northern winter. While the recovery of Phoenix is improbable given the severe conditions that it has endured throughout the winter, the science that can still be accomplished makes the mission worth continuing."
One promising bright spot for reanimating Phoenix comes from a "Lazarus mode" that Lockheed Martin, the builder of the spacecraft, added to allow the lander to re-energize itself. It all depends, however, on Phoenix's solar panels having survived the winter — and/or not completely covered with Martian dust.
Should Phoenix miraculously rise from the ashes again, NASA will use its weather instruments and cameras to monitor and send back data. In a best-case scenario, they might even be able to dig once more into the Martian surface.