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Russian space enthusiasts may have found lost Soviet Mars lander

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April 13, 2013

Mars 3 lander (Image: NASA)

Mars 3 lander (Image: NASA)

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Russian space enthusiasts have pinpointed the resting place of what is believed to be the Soviet lander, Mars 3, which failed shortly after landing in 1971. Using images returned by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a crowdsourcing effort has found what may be four components of the lander, its parachute and descent module.

The Mars 2 and Mars 3 missions used two identical spacecraft consisting of a bus/orbiter module and descent/lander module. Mars 3 was launched on May 28, 1971, from Baikonur Cosmodrome and landed on Mars on December 2 of that year. While the Mars 2 lander vanished during the descent into a planet-wide dust storm, Mars 3 survived and went into the record books as the first successful successful landing on Mars. Unfortunately, “successful” is a flexible term in this case because the lander failed within two minutes of landing.

Vitali Egorov, head of the largest Russian Internet community about Curiosity, announced that Mars 3 may have been found to the site's subscribers. The community then scoured a 1.8-billion pixel image taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in November 2007 of the area where the Soviet Mars 3 landed, and based on modelings produced by Egorov of what Mars 3 hardware pieces should look like in the image, identified four possible candidates.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter images showing possible Mars 3 hardware (Image: NASA/JPL-Calte...
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter images showing possible Mars 3 hardware (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

"I wanted to attract people's attention to the fact that Mars exploration today is available to practically anyone," Egorov said. "At the same time we were able to connect with the history of our country, which we were reminded of after many years through the images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter."

Alexander Basilevsky, of Vernadsky Institute of Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry, Moscow and advisor to the group, contacted HiRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona, Tucson and suggested a follow-up image, which was taken on March 10, 2013. The new image seems brighter, which is probably due to better illumination over the sloping surface or because dust has been blown off some of the components, such as the parachute.

The group found what may be four parts of the descent/lander module. These include the parachute with six feet (7.5 m) of its 36-feet (11 m) exposed, the heat shield, the descent module and the lander itself.

Artist's concept of the Mars 3 spacecraft (Image: NASA)
Artist's concept of the Mars 3 spacecraft (Image: NASA)

"Together, this set of features and their layout on the ground provide a remarkable match to what is expected from the Mars 3 landing, but alternative explanations for the features cannot be ruled out," said McEwen. "Further analysis of the data and future images to better understand the three-dimensional shapes may help to confirm this interpretation."

The descent/lander module were connected to the orbiter during the passage from Earth with the latter remaining in orbit for meteorological studies and relaying data from the lander. The lander itself was a sphere 1.2 meters (approx. 4 ft) in diameter with four triangular petals that opened after landing to expose the two television cameras, a mass spectrometer, and temperature and wind sensors. The lander also carried a pennant with the Soviet coat of arms.

One other historic point about the Mars probes is that their equipment included the first Mars rover, Prop-M. This 4.5 kilogram (9.9 lb) robot was tethered to the lander by a 15 meter (49 ft) communications cable. It was designed to "walk" on a pair of skis into view of the television cameras while taking measurements with its dynamic penetrometer and radiation densitometer.

Mars 3 Prop-M rover (Image: NASA)
Mars 3 Prop-M rover (Image: NASA)

After a three-minute descent on December 2, 1971, Mars 3 landed by parachute and retrorocket in Ptolemaeus Crater. Ninety seconds after landing, the petal covers opened and radio transmission began at 1:52:05 GMT and failed at 01:52:25 PM GMT. During this brief time, it managed to send a garbled, poorly illuminated panoramic image showing no details. The probe’s failure may have been due to the planet-wide dust storm building up a static electric charge and damaged the equipment with a coronal discharge.

Sources: NASA

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
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