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Join Date: Jan 2005
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The Mystery of the Mars Polar Lander

03/30/2005 7:00 AM

The Mars Polar Lander, launched on January 3, 1999, was to be the first mission to the southern polar cap of the Red Planet. It arrived successfully at Mars and started its descent on December 3, 1999; however, communication was lost early in the descent and the craft was never heard from again.

A NASA investigation team's hypothesis is that spurious signals generated during deployment of the spacecraft's landing legs caused the Lander to "think" that it had landed when it was actually still high above the planet's surface. The Lander would have then cut off its descent engine, resulting in a high speed crash (~ 50 mph) into the planet's surface.

There is some controversy because images of the landing site taken by the Mars Global Surveyor and analyzed by the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) at JPL's request seem to show what could be the Lander sitting upright on the Martian surface. (NIMA is a combat support and national intelligence agency with expertise in analyzing photo imagery). Unfortunately, because the size of the Lander is near the extreme resolution limit of the Mars Global Surveyor's camera, NIMA can't be certain.

Perhaps the final fate of the Lander will be known when the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), scheduled to be launched in August 2005, reaches the Red Planet. The MRO has a higher resolution camera than the Mars Global Surveyor and may be able to provide better information about the fate of the Mars Polar Lander. Unfortunately, until someone actually pays the Lander a visit, we won't know why it failed.

... Maybe we could send one of the Mars Rovers on a long drive?

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