NASA slowly shuts down Mars robot as long night approaches

After proving elements needed for life exist on Mars, Lander left to freeze to death

"Some kinds of Earth life would be happy to live in these soils," said Samuel Kounaves, a professor at Tufts University and a research affiliate at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in an earlier press conference. "Asparagus, green beans and turnips love alkaline soils."

With so much research and information coming out of one robotic machine operating so far from home, Lewicki said it's been difficult to start shutting it down.

"We had no expectation that we'd be able to continue this long," he added. "This is really a first big step for the team in letting go. We have these instruments we've been using for the last five months and we had a lot of interesting ideas left to be done. It's been a bit of a grieving process that will start this week as we see the big changes starting to happen. We'll have to stand back and watch it end."

But the Lander's work isn't totally over.

Lewicki noted that atomic microscope will be kept running, along with the imager and meteorological instruments to measure pressure and temperature in the atmosphere. The lidar instruments, which measure cloud height, will also keep operating for a time.

"We've certainly been as successful as we hoped we would be," he said. "We met all our promises and commitments to NASA. Based on what we've found, we have different questions about Mars that we're trying to answer while we're still there and there will be new questions to answer when we go back again."

Next year, NASA is slated to launch an SUV-size rover on a trip to Mars. With an estimated budget of US$2 billion, the Mars Science Laboratory will carry three different kinds of cameras, chemistry instruments, environmental sensors and radiation monitors. According to NASA, all of these instruments are designed to help scientists continue to figure out whether life ever existed on Mars and to prepare to send humans to the Red Planet.

In 2004, President George W. Bush called on NASA to send humans back to the moon by 2020 in preparation for a manned-mission to Mars some day.

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