Image: Phoenix Mars Lander
Cory Waste  /  AP file
This artist's rendition, provided by NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. shows the Phoenix lander on the arctic plains of Mars digging a trench through the upper soil layer.
updated 10/31/2008 2:15:21 AM ET 2008-10-31T06:15:21

NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander regained contact with Earth more than a day after falling silent, but its days on the Red Planet are still numbered, mission managers said Thursday.

Waning sunlight and a dust storm this week drained the lander’s power, forcing it to go into safe mode. It failed to respond to two wake-up calls from Earth but sent a signal late Thursday when the orbiting Odyssey spacecraft passed overhead.

Phoenix is programmed with a “Lazarus mode” that automatically causes it to reboot itself after losing power. Though Phoenix answered the latest call, it went back to sleep for another 19 hours to recharge its battery. Engineers expect the lander to survive several more weeks.

“We knew this was coming. It’s bittersweet,” said project manager Barry Goldstein of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Phoenix landed in the Martian arctic in May. During its three-month prime mission, the sun stayed above the horizon, allowing the long-armed lander to dig trenches in the soil and collect ice bits for its various instruments to analyze.

NASA extended the mission in hopes of getting the most science out of the spacecraft before it dies.

In recent days, the weather at Phoenix’s landing site has worsened. Overnight temperatures plunged to minus-141 degrees Fahrenheit, and daytime temperatures reached only minus-50 degrees F — the lowest temperatures so far in the mission. The lander also weathered a dust storm.

Phoenix landed in a patch of ice in Mars’ high northern latitudes to study whether the environment could be friendly to microbial life. It has found evidence that the ice may have melted at some point, although the soil is dry. It has yet to find the presence of organic, or carbon-based, compounds that are considered essential for life.

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