Tonight’s Sky at Night includes a report from the Phoenix Mission Control in Tucson. We recorded it a couple of weeks ago, and while everything in there is still true, events on the surface of the red planet have moved on.
While not dead yet, having successfully communicated with an orbiting spacecraft on Thursday, in most meaningful ways Phoenix’s life as a scientific explorer is over.
Deciphering the results from Phoenix‘s five months or so on the surface will take a lot of time. The experiments it carried were among the most ambitious ever flown, and perhaps the frustrations – soil too sticky to fall swiftly into an oven, for example – were inevitable. I’m disappointed in particular that a measurement of the isotopic ratio of the ice (which would have given us clues as to when it last was liquid) proved impossible, but the scientific bounty from the mission is immense, and no amount of scientific greed should detract from the fact that Phoenix was hugely successful.
Credit and kudos should also go to the mission’s media team. In the five or so years I’ve been doing the Sky at Night, we’ve never been made more welcome by a mission than we were the three times we visited Phoenix in Tucson. One of the team who looked after us, Carla Bitter, Education and Public Outreach manager, has written about her feelings on the Phoenix blog.
As you can imagine, communicating real science in real time here on Earth about the daily happenings on Mars can have even the best minds reeling at the complexities of sharing new information quickly and authentically, sometimes before we really know what it all means. This is the time before mere information becomes knowledge. The time you’d like to stay quiet, to think and wonder about the data. The time it takes to assess, to examine, to argue, to understand, then finally to explain and share these new findings.
Here, we disagree. The joy of the Phoenix mission is that they’ve taken us along with them while they’ve thought, and wondered, examined and argued, doing their best to explain and share what they’re doing. If more missions did this, then we might begin to move away from the idea that our explorers of the solar system send back the Answers, complete with press release and Nature paper and with no further work required. I may be waiting eagerly for the flood of scientific papers to start flowing now that the team have more time on their hands, but I’ve enjoyed this period of glorious uncertainty too.