When NASA shot its Phoenix lander into space in August of 2007, it wasn’t expecting it to last very long. The robotic spacecraft touched down on Mars in May of 2008 and began a three-month scientific mission to study the makeup of the planet’s dusty surface. Scientists wanted to know if the conditions on the planet were adequate to support microscopic life and if water was ever abundant on its surface.
It did its job, and the mission was considered a success, but unlike many piece of high-tech NASA hardware it never got much of a chance to exceed expectations. Waning sunlight caused the solar-powered lander to poop out a couple of months after it wrapped up its initial objectives, and now, a decade later, Mars has almost completely swallowed the Phoenix and erased all evidence that it was even there.
“The lander worked for two additional months before reduced sunlight caused energy to become insufficient to keep the lander functioning,” NASA explains. “The solar-powered robot was not designed to survive through the dark and cold conditions of a Martian arctic winter.”
Mars is windy and dusty, and that’s a really bad combination for a piece of hardware that doesn’t move. As new images of the Phoenix landing site reveal, a decade of dust has obscured the lander and erased the dark patches it created when it completed its descent. It won’t be long before Mother Mars completely engulfs what’s left, leaving the relic to become little more than a Martian fossil.
The image above is a comparison between the Phoenix landing site shortly after impact and what it looks like today. The bright circle and dark patch in the upper portion of the image is the lander itself and the ground beneath the dust it ejected upon impact, while the dark blob in the bottom right is the spot where the lander’s rear shell and parachute ended up. As you can see, it didn’t take long for the planet’s winds to cause dust to drift over the entire area once more.
NASA has long considered the Phoenix dead, so seeing that it’s been caked in dust isn’t exactly a surprise. However, in a time where space agencies the world over are moving towards manned missions to the Red Planet, it is a timely reminder that the planet wastes no time in erasing the things we send there.