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Mars Climate Orbiter, Mars Polar Lander and Deep Space 2:
The Failed Quest for Water
Mars Polar Lander Deep Space 2 Mars Climate Orbiter
Mars Climate Orbiter, Mars Polar Lander and Deep Space 2 all were lost in 1999.
NASA, JPL, Malin Space Science Systems image
NASA engineers are in the dark on the whereabouts of Mars Polar Lander. The spacecraft failed to contact controllers on Earth after its presumed landing on the Red Planet on December 3, 1999.
Scientists also never heard from Deep Space 2, a pair of small probes that were to have separated from Polar Lander and penetrated the Martian surface 35 miles from the main landing site.
Engineers used a variety of techniques to listen intently for signals from the lost probes, but with no luck.
The attempt to land on the planet's surface came ten weeks after the probe's sister ship, Mars Climate Orbiter, was lost due to a math error.
Mars Polar Lander Found on the Surface
Malin Space Science Systems, which built a camera that flies above the Red Planet aboard the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) spacecraft, has used that instrument to locate what may be the remains of the Polar Lander and its parachute.
One MGS image, recorded in 2000, showed something that looks like a parachute (D image at right) and dirt that may have been disturbed by a rocket blast (E image). A bright spot (E image) might be the wreckage of the Mars Polar Lander (MPL).
In 2004, researchers went back to the 2000 photo after the same camera saw the parachutes of the twin Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, on the surface. The rover parachutes were made of the same material as those used by the Polar Lander. Comparing the parachute images led researchers to believe the 2000 photo showed Polar Lander on the surface. In the MGS photo, the lander appears to be intact.
The scene down on Mars indicated Polar Lander crashed because its braking rockets quit early. A NASA review board had found that the lander probably shut down its landing engines when its computer thought a landing leg deployment meant that the craft had touched down.
The Mars Surveyor '98 Program
The NASA program known as Mars Surveyor '98 was built around two companion spacecraft launched separately from Earth -- Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander. They were designed to work together studying Martian weather, climate and soil in search of water and evidence of long-term climate changes and other interesting weather effects.
Polar Lander was lofted to space on a Boeing Delta-2 rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on January 3, 1999. The probe's 11-month journey was to end with a landing on the icy polar surface of the Red Planet on Dec. 3, 1999.
The lander's work was to have been coordinated with its sister spacecraft, Climate Orbiter, which had blasted off on December 11, 1998, aboard a Boeing Delta-2. Climate Orbiter, after cruising across space for 286 days, was supposed to drop into an elliptical orbit around Mars. Unfortunately, Climate Orbiter was lost as it entered the orbit of Mars in September 1999.
Stunned mission managers were forced to admit that a math error had been made. While engineers at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) had used metric measurements (newtons), engineers at Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Denver, the prime contractor for the mission, had used English units (pounds) to measure the strength of Climate Orbiter thruster firings.
Engineers had said they corrected the problem before Polar Lander arrived at Mars. NASA had expected Polar Lander to operate for 60 to 90 Martian days or Sols. A Sol is about 24 hours 37 minutes.
Mars Polar Lander
The 3-ft. 600-lb. Mars Polar Lander was a 1,270 lb. spider-like robot designed to parachute down through the thin cold Martian atmosphere, fire retro-rockets and make a soft landing on layered terrain at the edge of the Red Planet's south polar cap.
The never-explored region was so close to the south pole that the Sun would not dip below the horizon during the mission. Although it would have been late spring in that area of Mars at the time of landing, the average surface temperature was expected to be around minus-73 degrees Fahrenheit.
That region might hold evidence of what happened to water some believe may have flowed long ago on Mars. Water is said to be one of the key building blocks of life. Finding it on Mars could help scientists understand the geologic history of Mars. It also would fire the imagination of those who suspect life once existed on Mars.
Even though none of the spacecraft that have landed on Mars has found a trace of water, finding water is important to future exploration of Mars and other planets. Water there could be used to produce oxygen, fuel and drinking water. Future spacecraft then would not have to carry water from Earth.
Where is the water? Scientists suggest water may have been abundant on Mars. Photos snapped by earlier probes seem to show deep channels, canyons and ancient lake shorelines. Similar features were carved into Earth by flowing water.
The water may have been lost in space as the planet's atmosphere thinned. Or, it may have become trapped under the planet's surface. Water ice has been detected at the Martian north pole and it may exist in the cap at the south pole.
Polar Lander was to be positioned where the south pole's layered terrain extends farthest north, a site that avoids seasonal carbon dioxide frost.
Mars Global Surveyor. Images sent home to Earth in 1997 by the Global Surveyor -- which still is in orbit around Mars -- revealed a range of contrasts in the layered terrain around the south pole. Bright areas might contain surface ice. Darker areas might be partially frosted. That makes it a good place to look for water.
Something like looking at tree rings on Earth, researchers suggest that the bright and dark bands may help them know whether the planet's climate changes catastrophically or gradually.
Scientific instruments. Polar Lander carried numerous technical instruments from which scientists had hoped to gain information. The payload included:
Mars Polar Lander also carried the names of more than 932,000 persons.
- Deep Space 2 was two basketball-sized probes to have been released 10 minutes before touchdown as the lander plummeted through the atmosphere toward the planet surface. They were to have crashed into the planet at 400 miles per hour and penetrate three feet beneath the surface. The bullet-like twin probes would have measured the underground temperature and attempted to find subsurface ice.
The Deep Space 2 probeswere dubbed Amundsen and Scott after the first explorers to reach the South Pole on Earth. They were designed to examine the subsoil for signs of water.
- Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) was a light-weight camera that would have snapped a dozen black and white wide-angle views of the Martian surface as the lander descended. It was to start ten seconds after the lander's parachute deployed at five miles altitude and continue until touchdown. The pictures would have provided a larger geographic context for local landforms around the landing zone.
- Digital Camera was to pop up from the lander's deck. It had two lenses that would have snapped 3-D panoramic stereo color pictures of the landscape around the landing site. The mast-mounted camera was identical to the imager used in 1996 on the Mars Pathfinder lander.
- Robot Arm was a six-foot limb extending out from Polar Lander to dig in the soil for the geologic history of Mars. The arm would have dug trenches in the icy soil and then used a small camera mounted on the arm to transmit close-up pictures of stratified layers. Like the exposed walls of the Grand Canyon on Earth, these layers were to have exposed a record of gross fluctuations in the Martian environment, telling scientists more about why a planet that appears to have been so wet in the past is so cold and dry now.
- Mars Volatiles and Climate Surveyor (MVACS) would have studied water and carbon dioxide around the landing site. The 37-lb. device was to scoop up soil samples to be tested by other instruments aboard the lander. It had a mast-mounted weather station to measure atmospheric pressure, wind speed, temperature and water vapor.
- Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer would have heated soil samples and analyzed them for water and carbon dioxide. Polar Lander was to extend the robot arm to dig up soil and rock samples, which then would have been heated in a small onboard oven and the resulting gases analyzed to determine their content of ice and frozen carbon dioxide.
- Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR), provided by the Russian Academy of Science's Space Research Institute, was the first Russian experiment flown on a U.S. planetary spacecraft. It would have helped scientists learn more about ice and dust in the lower part of the Martian atmosphere.
- Mars Microphone would have let folks back on Earth listen to the Red Planet. The tiny two-ounce device was a $15 microphone connected to a chip ordinarily found in telephones and talking toys. Unlike other instruments aboard the $165 million spacecraft, the Mars Microphone was privately funded. The sounds it would have picked up would have been posted on the Planetary Society's Web site at www.planetary.org. They also would have been heard on NASA, CNN and other Web sites. The late planetary scientist Carl Sagan first proposed wiring a lander for sound during the Viking missions to Mars in the 1970s.
No rover. Unlike the famous Pathfinder mission of 1996, Polar Lander did not have a robot rover. Instead, the 639-lb. central structure of the lander would have been stationary on the planet's surface. It measures 3.5 feet tall by 12 feet wide. Mars Pathfinder stopped transmitting in September 1997.
It's all about water. The goal of the lander was to "follow the water," as NASA puts it. To look for life on another planet, either fossilized or living, scientists try to "follow the water." While the Mars Surveyor '98 project wasn't designed specifically to look for traces of life, scientists say the information gathered by the Polar Lander would have helped them understand whether life once could have gained a foothold on the planet.
Mars Climate Orbiter
After cruising across space for 286 days, Climate Orbiter was supposed to drop into orbit around Mars from where it would assist its sister spacecraft, the Polar Lander.
The orbiter was to have studied the planet's atmosphere, climate, meteorology and volatile surface materials such as water ice and frozen carbon dioxide. It also was to have relayed the lander's radio signals to Earth.
Math error. Unhappily, Climate Orbiter was lost as it entered the orbit of Mars in September 1999. Mission managers said a math error had been made. Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) had used metric measurements (newtons), but engineers at Lockheed Martin Astronautics had used English units (pounds) to measure the strength of Climate Orbiter thruster firings.
Probes of the Past
Probes of the Future
Mars Rift Valley
Mars Life Search
Mars Dust Storms
Mars Orbiter 2005
Mars Scout 2007
Rover Spirit 2003
Rover Opportunity 2003
Polar Lander 1999
Climate Orbiter 1998
Deep Space 2 1999
Global Surveyor 1996
Pathfinder Lander 1996
Rover Sojourner 1996
Pathfinder Mission 1996
Viking-1 Lander 1975
Viking-2 Orbiter 1975
Viking-1 Lander 1975
Viking-1 Orbiter 1975
Mariner 9 Orbiter 1971
Mars 3 Lander 1971
Mariner 4 Flyby 1964
Viking Mission 1975
Mars Meteorites - JPL
2003 & Beyond - Goddard
2005 & Beyond - JPL
Mars Exploration - JPL
Plans to Explore Planets
Solar System - JPL
Welcome to the Planets - JPL
Planetary Photojournal - JPL
Mars - Athena - NASA Ames
Solar System Tour - BBC
Mars - New York Times
Windows...Universe - UMich
Mars - Apollo Society
The Nine Planets
Planet Mars Company
Solar System - STO
Solar System Tour
NASA CONCEPTION OF MARS WITH
WATER FOUR BILLIONS YEAR AGO