Mars Polar Lander: Lost but now found?

Minutes before the Mars Polar Lander was expected to touch down on the Red Planet on Dec. 3, 1999, NASA lost contact with the spacecraft (SN: 3/4/00, p. 159: Available to subscribers at No signal from Mars Polar Lander).

REMAINS TO BE SEEN. Images show sites of possible wreckage of the Mars Polar Lander (bottom) and its discarded parachute (top), lost in 1999. Malin Space Science Systems, JPL/NASA

Now, researchers think that they have located the remains of the craft and its parachute, Michael Malin of Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego reports in the July Sky & Telescope.

Malin’s team used a camera that it built, which flies aboard the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft, to search for the lost craft. One image, taken in 2000, showed hints of a parachute, a patch of dirt perhaps disturbed by a rocket blast, and a bright spot that might be the wreckage of the lander itself. But in the absence of corroborating evidence and with uncertainties about what the wreckage would look like, the initial identification appeared “extremely speculative,” Malin says.

Last year, his team reexamined the picture after the same camera discerned the parachutes of the twin Mars rovers. The rover parachutes are made of the same material as that of the lander. By comparing parachute images and other details, Malin and his colleagues concluded that the tantalizing image taken in 2000 almost certainly shows the lost lander’s remains.

The appearance of the Martian surface in the image suggests that the lander crashed because its braking rockets stopped firing slightly too soon. That concurs with the scenario proposed by a NASA review board, which said that the lander probably shut off its landing engines when software mistook the deployment of a landing leg for a signal that the craft had actually touched down. The image indicates that despite the crash, the lander remains largely intact.

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