The odds are long, but NASA plans to begin searching Jan. 18 for the Phoenix Mars Lander, which hasn't been heard from since it "completed five months of studying an arctic Martian site in November 2008," the space agency said in a news release Jan. 11. "The solar-powered lander operated two months longer than its three-month prime mission during summer on northern Mars."
Since then, though, the lander has not been heard from. "The lander's hardware was not designed to survive the temperature extremes and ice-coating load of an arctic Martian winter," NASA explained.
In hopes of making contact with the Phoenix, NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter will listen for possible radio signals "approximately 10 times each day during three consecutive days of listening this month and two longer listening campaigns in February and March."
"We do not expect Phoenix to have survived, and therefore do not expect to hear from it," Chad Edwards, chief telecommunications engineer for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif., said in the news release. "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."
If Phoenix survived the harsh Martian winter, NASA said, "it is expected to follow instructions programmed on its computer. If systems still operate, once its solar panels [generated] enough electricity to establish a positive energy balance, the lander would periodically try to communicate with any available Mars relay orbiters in an attempt to re-establish contact with Earth." The statement continued:
""The amount of sunshine at Phoenix's site is currently about the same as when the lander last communicated, on Nov. 2, 2008, with the sun above the horizon about 17 hours each day. The listening attempts will continue until after the sun is above the horizon for the full 24.7 hours of the Martian day at the lander's high-latitude site. ...If Odyssey does hear from Phoenix, the orbiter will attempt to lock onto the signal and gain information about the lander's status. The initial task would be to determine what capabilities Phoenix retains, information that NASA would consider in decisions about any further steps.""