Jeopardy! category: SPACE: 2007 (4-3-2008)
FJ! Clue: A NASA Mars lander has this mythic name because it was made of parts from a scrapped 2001 mission
The gist: With an atmosphere containing just 0.13% oxygen (compared to Earth’s 21%), it would have been difficult for the spacecraft to pull off its namesake’s famous feat. The phoenix was a mythical fiery bird that was able to resurrect itself after its death. When a phoenix sensed its long life (often many hundreds of years) coming to an end, it built itself a pyre out of wood, lit it, and let the flames consume itself. Soon thereafter, a newborn phoenix chick would rise, reborn from its own ashes. Although it doesn’t feature directly in any of the famous mythical stories that have survived to the present day, the phoenix was said to embalm the remains of its predecessor in an egg and deposit it at the altar of Helios at Heliopolis (“City of the Sun”) in Egypt. It is a symbol of the cycle of death and rebirth, and was therefore linked in pagan times to the sun, another fiery being that “died” (that is, sunset) and was “reborn” (that is, sunrise) repeatedly, as well as with ideas of cycles and metempsychosis, the Greek idea of reincarnation. In Christian times, the phoenix became a symbol of Christ, who also died only to come back, and according to Christian eschatology will come back again in the future.
The Mars Phoenix lander was launched in 2007, landed near Mars’ north pole in May 2008, and made its last communication with Earth that November. The lander used in the Phoenix mission was a modified version of the Mars Surveyor 2001 Lander, and it included instruments from the unsuccessful 1998 Mars Polar Lander mission – the resurrection of these old, “discarded” parts* gave the mission its name. Unlike the more recent Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, the Phoenix lander couldn’t relocate itself, but it provided a wealth of extremely valuable information about Mars nonetheless. Part of its mission was to look for evidence of Martian water, which is why it was sent so such a high latitude (where the potential for finding ice near the surface is greatest). Sure enough, clumps excavated by the robot`s digging arm were found to sublimate at a rate that would be expected of water in Mars’ low-atmosphere conditions, directly demonstrating for the first time the presence of water ice on the planet. It also analyzed the soil composition at its landing site, which was found, among other things, to be moderately alkaline, but still within reasonable parameters to potentially support life. Beyond these technical analyses, Phoenix also sent back several extraordinary photos of the Martian surface.
The clue: Writing about it in 2015, this clue seems a bit obscure to me. The mythical phoenix wasn’t exactly composed of scrapped parts of its predecessor, and it’s a bit of a leap to get from “reincarnated from a pile of ashes” to “built using recycled lander parts.” But, the clue was broadcast in a show from March 2008, less than a year after the spacecraft was launched and about two months before it landed – it surely would have been more in the zeitgeist then than it is now. Still, just one contestant (who won, though she was in last place entering the FJ! round) gave the correct response, indicating a relatively tough clue.
In Jeopardy!: Like so many of the responses in this installment of DIJ!, “Phoenix” has many meanings – and the most popular one by far in the J!Archive is the largest city in and capital of Arizona. Searching for “phoenix” with “myth” lowers the previous almost 200 clues to just nine regular clues plus this FJ! – and two of the regular clues still mention Arizona. Five include something to do with fire, like ashes or burning, while one more mentions resurrection instead. One is about the Chinese delicacy chicken feet, which are apparently seen as symbolic of the phoenix. As far as Jeopardy! goes, remember that the phoenix rises from ashes.
*Actually, the Mars Polar Lander had been kept in specialized storage by Lockheed Martin between that mission and its use on Phoenix.