The missing Mars Lander | Forum

Maklarr4000 Jan 29
Here's a mystery that is, quite literally, out of this world.

When you spend roughly $210 million dollars of taxpayer money on a space project, the last thing anyone expects is for it to vanish without a trace. But, that is exactly what has happened to the ill-fated Mars Polar Lander (MPL), the lander component of the ill-fated Mars 98' project. The Mars Climate Orbiter, the satellite component of the mission was also lost, but at least we know what happened to it, so we'll focus on the lander instead.

The Mars Polar Lander (MPL) was designed and built as part of a cost-reduction process underway at NASA as they prepared for the construction of the International Space Station. The lander and it's two probes (Named Deep Space A and Deep Space B) would work in tandem to gather vast amounts of data on the conditions in the Martian polar region for roughly 90 days, before either being given new tasks, or being shut down as the Viking Landers from the 70's had been before them.

The orbiter and lander were launched on January 3rd, 1999, and would reach Mars in early September of the same year. Everything seemed normal on the flight over, and indeed everything seemed well when the two craft separated- the Mars Climate Orbiter flying off to it's doom in the Martian atmosphere, while the lander progressed to begin the slow landing process that would culminate on December 3rd, 1999. Everything was going according to plan.

Then, nothing.

There was no signal- good, bad, or otherwise from the lander. Attempts to contact it failed. Then, attempts to contact Deep Space A and B were made, though as they were intended to strike the ground and then relay their findings to the lander, it seemed unlikely they would have the power to call home. The Mars Climate Orbiter would burn up in the Martian atmosphere, leaving the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS), launched in 1996, as the sole orbiting craft left functional to even look for the missing lander. NASA redirected their precious scientific craft to photograph the area where the lander was expected to be, and an object was sighted, and believed to be the lander. The cameras aboard the MGS were not powerful enough to make out the craft exactly, so determining what caused it to fail was left to the team at the Joint Propulsion Laboratory to figure out.

The official report cited that the MPL likely rattled around during landing, essentially "tricking" the computer that it had landed, and to cut power to the landing engines while it was relatively high in the air- smashing it to bits on impact. Attempts to reach the craft were suspended on December 14th, 1999, and the mission was ended in failure.

Though the educated guess remains the official explanation for what happened to the lander, it's still only a guess. In 2003, the European Space Agency's "Mars Express" program had lost the unusual Beagle-2 lander, which had also vanished without a trace. As the skies above Mars became more crowded with orbiters, including NASA's 2001 Orbiter, the Mars Express, and the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS), there seemed to be no trace of the much smaller ESA craft.

Then, in 2005 NASA launched the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), essentially a spy satellite to photograph the entirety of Mars to serve as the foundation for future missions. The MRO assumed the mantle of the MGS, which finally succumbed to computer problems in 2007, and with thousands of high-quality photographs pouring in, the craft were sure to be found.

In January of 2015, after years of looking, Beagle-2 was found intact on Mars- a technical failure of some sort caused it's solar panels to fail.

However, while one mystery was solved, another was torn open. Upon attempting to get a better look at the failed MPL, the MRO photos revealed that what the old MGS had photographed was, in fact, a rock.

(The objects in the upper left of the image), as seen by the MRO, in the area the lander is supposed to be.

Further inspection of the area, and the areas nearby didn't reveal much of anything- the MPL was lost all over again.

Today, much like before, it's unknown what exactly happened to the spacecraft. We know that it is on Mars somewhere, but where it is exactly and whether it's in one piece or a million is a total mystery. What caused it to crash is assumed, but not known.

The technology for landing equipment on Mars has evolved considerably since the MPL loss. The Phoenix Lander touched down in 2008 with similar instruments and carried out what the MPL had set out to do a decade earlier. Multiple probes and several rovers remain active on Mars today, but the fate of a multi-million dollar machine remains a total mystery. It's somewhere out there, but where is anyone's guess.

Perhaps as people continue to scour the photos still pouring in from Mars, we'll yet find it. Maybe the person to find it among the thousands of photos will be you.

The Mars Polar Lander as seen in 1998.

The oldschool Joint Propulsion Lab website on the Mars Polar Lander is HERE, and definitely worth a look.
It's sister site for the doomed Mars Climate Orbiter is HERE.
Wikipedia is HERE.
Finally, an exhaustive press package from the Joint Propulsion Lab is HERE.
There's also a New York Times article that's pretty quick HERE.

Jasper Jan 29
Aliens got it now.