Mars Pathfinder enlisted in search for lost Polar Lander
Mars Pathfinder site, 1998 and 2000 (right).
January 25, 2000
Web posted at: 1:57 PM EST (1857 GMT)
(CNN) -- Can a spacecraft that touched down on Mars in 1997
help find the lost Polar Lander? Hoping the answer is yes,
NASA has aimed a camera orbiting the red planet on the
landing site of the Mars Pathfinder.
Besides providing the highest resolution images ever of the
spot -- the space agency released those images this week -- the photo shoot could help scientists focus the lens on the area where
the Mars Polar Lander disappeared.
After abandoning efforts last week to make radio contact with
the $165 million Polar Lander, which has remained silent
since preparing to land in December, NASA said that the
Global Mars Surveyor would continue a visual search of the barren polar landscape until late January or early February.
The pictures are taken at the highest spatial resolution
possible for the orbiting camera, 1.5 meters (5 feet) per
pixel. At this resolution, the fuselage and wings of a jumbo
jet can be distinguished.
Finding a needle in a pile of needles
Is the Mars Lander somewhere in here?
Yet the task of finding the lander is daunting. The
spacecraft most likely consists of only a few square pixels
within one of the images. Mars scientists are basically
trying to distinguish one or two pixels from nearly 150
The search is like "trying to find a specific needle in ... a
haystack-sized pile of needles," one team member remarked.
In the first image, ellipses indicate the regions in which
the Polar Lander may have touched down. NASA's Langley
Research Center derived the largest ellipse; the Mars Polar
Lander contractor, Lockheed Martin Astronautics, calculated
the two smaller ones. The smallest is the target that was
given to the Surveyor camera team shortly after lander
recovery attempts began in mid-December.
One mosaic of orbiting camera images offers much higher
resolution. In the composite, more than 330 square kilometers
(127 sq. miles) of south polar terrain have been imaged at
1.5 meters per pixel.
No trace of the Polar Lander or its parachute has been seen,
although this is not surprising given the camera's resolution
and illumination conditions, NASA scientists said.
Pathfinder test reveals daunting task
Conducted to determine the capabilities of the orbiting
camera, a test search earlier this month demonstrated the
difficulty of distinguishing a lander even if the location is
known. There have been three successful Mars lander missions,
the Viking 1 and Viking 2 in 1976, and the Pathfinder in
Scientists trained the orbiting camera on the Pathfinder
because the location is easiest to find. Several distinct
landmarks in the lander's images help identify the
spacecraft's location, like Big Crater, Twin Peaks and North
To snap the photos, the orbiter had to be pointed off of its
normal, straight-down view. NASA shot pictures of the
Pathfinder location in 1998, but the January 2000 images have
much higher resolution, in part because the orbiter took the
snapshots from a lower altitude.
Mars scientists determined that they could identify the
landing site of the Pathfinder, but could not see the
spacecraft or its parachute. Like the lander, the Pathfinder
would not be much larger than two pixels in the most resolute
The search will continue for a few weeks at most, but the
prospects remain poor. "This analysis suggests that it is not
very likely that the December 1999 Polar Lander will be
found," the Web site for the Mars Orbiter Camera concluded.
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Mars Polar Lander Official Website
Mars Exploration Program
Mars Global Surveyor
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