Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Mars Lander to Freeze to Death as it Snows

Winter begins its rampage across the red planet. Martian weather is all the nerdy rage as an actual snow storm produced flakes. The Phoenix Lander has no place to hide as the thermometer races downward. Solar power provides its juice, but no blanket, as the original plan had been for a 90 day summer job. Phoenix has had its death sentence commuted twice, from August to September and then through the Martian holiday season. The challenge for Phoenix is surviving long enough to make it through December as the region it is working in is the north polar area. Closer to Mars equator, the almost 5 year old death defying Rover twins, Spirit & Opportunity, are able to power down, hibernate and soak up solar energy for the winter season while the Mars satellite babysitter observes from its orbit. Anything extra was Martian space gravy for the Phoenix scientists studying the planet for signs of life, water and digging for ice. Good thing that the next iteration of a lander, MSL, is going to be the size of an Earth endangered Hummer.
"We're at the mercy of Mars," said Phoenix project manager Barry Goldstein, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
As winter descends on the Martian arctic, two important things will happen. The sun will sink below the horizon, and "it's going to get cold." said Phoenix meteorological team member Peter Taylor of York University in Toronto, Canada.
Of course, Mars is never warm by Earth standards (it is further from the sun and lacks our planet's thick, heat-trapping atmosphere), but summer above the Martian arctic circle is downright balmy compared to the winter.
It is not even the thick of winter and nighttime temps are -112° F or -80° C. Now that's just freeze your steel parts off cold. But part of the weather phenomenon that has amazed Mars' storm chasers are falling snowflakes, Frosty the Lander style. The Mars Maginot line of death is at 1000 Watt-hours - the minimum amount of solar caffeine needed for the Phoenix to wake up from a frozen nights slumber. There is a race on now between the scientists to get all of their experiments done because no one wants to be the person that has to say it was just this close to proving the first Martian organism that could survive in these conditions before Phoenix freezes solid. No one expects a Lazarus like reemergence come the spring thaw as it will be three months since the sun dropped below the horizon before it peaks over the area again. Lander scientists think Phoenix and Ted Williams styled cryogenic awakening are mathematical improbabilities.

Meanwhile, let it snow, let it snow let it snow. A Martian snowflake caught by a nifty pulsing laser before it ever hit the ground.. Ready sources of red planet water from frost, clouds or in the dirt are important as missions landing people on the red planet need it for survival. Already missions are being drawn up to land astronauts in habitats on the moon in preparation of preparing for a Mars manned spaceflight.

Scientists don’t know yet exactly what Martian snow looks like to the human eye.

"We’ve been trying to capture some snow (on camera) but so far have been unsuccessful," Mr. Dickinson said. "We’ll keep trying. But if we don’t get lucky, that might be something we’ll have to do on the next mission."

The presence of snow means humans might be able to live on the freezing planet.

Of course there is the irony of Canadians finding the snow first...

NASA has laid the ground work for years for a mission. Here is a book they put togther to outline some of the details and challenges for a manned spaceflight mission and what to do one getting off the years long flight pretty much knowing there is no return ticket. The book is The Case for Mars Concept Development for a Mars Research Station: Concept Development for a Mars Research Station - the title pretty much sums up how NASA killed firing up the public imagination on the topic.

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