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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 Global Surveyor image of Polar Lander down on Mars
The 2000 image by Mars Global Surveyor of what may be an intact Polar Lander down on Mars. The parachute is in the D image, top, and the dirt that may have been disturbed by a rocket blast is in the E image, bottom. The bright spot in the E image may be whatever remains of the Mars Polar Lander (MPL).
NASA, JPL, Malin Space Science Systems image
Mars Climate Orbiter, Mars Polar Lander and Deep Space 2 all were lost in 1999.

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.

Mars Polar Lander launch
Polar Lander launch
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

Mars Polar Lander touches down gently on the Red Planet in this NASA artist's conception
Mars Polar Lander should have touched down gently on the Red Planet as depicted in this NASA artist's concept.
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.

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

Mars Climate Orbiter circles the Red Planet in this NASA artist's conception
Mars Climate Orbiter should have circled the Red Planet as depicted in this NASA artist's concept.
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.

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