Bad Astronomy

Mars Polar Lander, found?

In early 1999, an ambitious Mars lander was launched. The mission of the Mars Polar Lander was to land on Mars, sample the ground and air, and get us one step closer to putting people on the Red Planet. Landing near the polar region of Mars as tricky, but the payoff was to learn more about the ice cap known to exist there.

Later that year, however, the lander was lost. It was later determined that the rockets that were to lower it gently down the surface cut off prematurely, and it plummeted down the last 40 meters instead. It’s possible that when the landing gear snapped into place while still high above the surface, the jolt they made was misinterpreted by the sensors onboard as meaning the lander had touched down. The rockets cut off, and down it went.

In the intervening years, people have wondered exactly where it landed. By knowing this, for example, future missions might be able to take higher resolution imagery and find out if there are any more clues to what went wrong.

Plus, humans are curious. Where on Mars is MPL?

It’s possible that it’s now been found. The Mars Global Surveyor was launched in 1996, and has had a phenomenally successful mission, taking thousands of spectacular high-resolution images. And now, it appears to have found the final resting place of MPL.

The image above may show the MPL (click to see a much higher resolution and larger image). This image was taken by the Mars Orbiter Camera, the high-res imager onboard MGS (run by the Malin Space Science Systems company). The darker area to the lower left would be where the rockets disturbed the ground, and the bright spot would the lander itself. They may have also found the ejected parachute, located a few hundred meters to the west.

This image was actually taken some time ago, in 2000, but it was difficult to interpret. However, the Mars Global Surveyor took images of the landing sites of the two rovers which landed in early 2004, and used those sites as a comparison. The results are consistent with this being MPL.

With the location now established, the MGS can take higher resolution images. It’s hard to know exactly what will be learned from them (if we knew in advance, then it wouldn’t be exploration, would it?), but one thing that would be interesting would be to see what happens to a spacecraft after several years on the surface. With a resolution of 0.5 meters (roughly 18 inches) the images won’t tell us much, but they’ll be interesting nonetheless.

It’s worth noting that they almost certainly found Viking 2 as well! This landed way back in 1976. The image is very compelling:

The configuration is strikingly similar, and the location is about right. Mind you, the lander is only a couple of meters across.

I remember the Viking missions. They were designed specifically to take high resolution images, of course, but also to sample to surface and test it for signs of life. The results were maddeningly inconclusive, and are still argued over today (but most scientists agree the results were negative). But it opened wide the door to surface exploration of Mars, a door that is still open – and very inviting – today.