“Sensawonder” is a slang term among science fiction fans to refer to that awe-struck sense of wonder you get when contemplating the amazingness of the universe. I’ve been getting my sensawonder fix from following the Phoenix Mars mission over the past few months. In its five months of operations since landing, the Phoenix Mars lander has sent back some amazing observations, including a video of snow descending from Martian clouds, and evidence that there was running water on Mars in the past.
But now the Martian winter is closing in, with shorter daylight, more clouds, and more dust in the atmosphere, with the result that the lander is no longer getting enough power from its solar panels to send or receive radio signals to and from earth. The control team on earth issued a press release on November 3 to say that although they had hoped to get another couple of weeks of weather observations, dust storms were making that seem unlikely. As of today, they are reporting that they haven’t heard from the lander since November 2, making it seem likely that the lander has completely lost power.
The lander was designed to operate for only three months, so the last two months of operation have been a welcome bonus of additional sensawonder for us. Analysis of the data collected over the past five months has barely begun, and we can expect lots of additional science (and more wonder) to come out of the Phoenix Mars mission.