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NASA to seek signs of life from its Mars Lander

Robotic Lander craft has sat silently in Martian deep freeze for more than a year

January 12, 2010 12:53 PM ET

Computerworld - More than a year after the Phoenix Mars Lander appeared to effectively freeze to death on the surface of the Red Planet, NASA is getting ready to listen for signs that it's still alive.

NASA late yesterday announced that it will start listening for radio transmissions from the Lander, which went silent in November, 2008, after spending five months studying the Mars surface, early next week. While the Mars Lander was not designed to survive extreme cold of a long Martian winter, scientists are holding out a slim hope that its solar cells will contain enough power to transmit a signal as spring arrives on the planet's surface.

Before falling silent, the Mars Lander communicated with Earth via Odyssey, a Mars relay orbiter.

"We do not expect Phoenix to have survived, and therefore do not expect to hear from it," said Chad Edwards, chief telecommunications engineer for NASA's Mars Exploration Program, in a statement. "However, if Phoenix is transmitting, Odyssey will hear it. We will perform a sufficient number of Odyssey contact attempts that if we don't detect a transmission from Phoenix, we can have a high degree of confidence that the Lander is not active."

The orbiter will transmit radio signals in the hopes that the Mars Lander will pick them up and respond. Scientists will begin listening for such signs of life on Monday and will continue to check on the Lander through February and March, according to NASA.

If the orbiter does pick up a signals, NASA said it will attempt to get information on the status of the machine.

The Lander, which worked two months beyond its three-month mission, gathered information on the content of Martian soil near the planet's north pole. The robotic machine dug up and analyzed soil samples, verified the existence of ice and verified that snow falls from Martian skies.

But the Lander began to slow as the Martian winter approached in late 2008.

Since the Lander is powered by solar cells and the Mars nights were growing longer at the end of October, 2008 scientists began to remotely power down as many parts of the Lander as possible to minimize its energy needs. That allowed a few instruments to keep running as long as possible. Then NASA scientists received the last transmission from the Lander on Nov. 2, 2008.

Scientists noted at the time that once the Mars Lander dies, it's doubtful it could ever be brought back to life after spending months in the dark and frigid cold.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at Twitter@sgaudin, send e-mail to sgaudin@computerworld.com or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed Gaudin RSS.

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