Find a Missing Mars Lander!

Wondering what to do with all that free time you have? NASA scientists are hoping to enlist volunteers to comb through high-resolution images of Mars to locate whatever remains of Mars Polar Lander.

MPL seen from above
A (Martian) bird's-eye view of NASA's Mars Polar Lander — assuming it landed on the planet in one piece. Click on image for a larger view.
NASA / JPL
Pros: If you find it, you'll be the first to spot the craft since it likely crash-landed during the final phase of its descent on December 3, 1999. NASA, no doubt, will give you a Certificate of Appreciation, suitable for framing.

Cons:You'd be hunting through 18 enormous images that typically contain 1.6 billion pixels each. If your computer monitor has a 1,280-by-1,024 display, roughly 131,000 pixels, you'll be scanning more than 1,200 screens of bleak Martian terrain — per image.

More cons: Scientists don't exactly know what to tell you to look for. If the spacecraft landed more or less intact, it should stand out from the smooth terrain around it as a bright-and-dark smudge of pixels. Worst case, there could be a few tiny smudges here and there … or a small crater. Or you could look for the craft's outer shell and parachute.

Mars lander from orbit
Here's how the Mars Polar Lander might look in a HiRISE view, taken from Martian orbit. The camera can resolve details just 1 foot (30 cm) across).
NASA / JPL
Guy MacArthur, a member of the HiRISE team for NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, floated this needle-in-haystack idea and links to the images in a blog entry on May 9th. HiRISE, which stands for High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, can resolve objects on Mars just 1 foot across from MRO's orbital altitude of 200 miles. Among its remarkable images are views of the Opportunity rover perched on the rim of Victoria crater.

Tim Parker, a specialist in observing Martian terrain from orbit (and from Earth — he's a first-rate backyard astronomer), has plenty of advice for would-be spacecraft hunters (note: it's a 15-megabyte PDF file). Be sure to read his suggestions before making that extra pot of coffee and hunkering down for this scavenger hunt.

6 thoughts on “Find a Missing Mars Lander!

  1. Guy McArthur

    That is a good summary, thanks Kelly. For the record, I was not trying to organize a search party, only pointing out that the images were now public.

    Guy McArthur
    HiRISE/University of Arizona

  2. Per Andersen

    I have an idea. How about partitioning the large images of Nars’ surface in many smaller parts and serving those parts out to volunteres to scrutinise? I think it might be easier to find something interesting in a small image rather to have to look at one very big image. Each small image could have a unique identifier assigned, and maybe there could be a competition of some sort to find interesting things?

  3. Linda Michelle

    When we first gazed at the moon through powerful telescopes, the moon appeared to be full of dirt and rocks. However, we were not convinced so we sent astronauts there. They brought back samples for scientists to analyze and it was confirmed that indeed, this was just dirt and rocks. However, we were not convinced so we went to the moon another dozen times or so just to really be sure it was real dirt and real rocks.

    When we first gazed at Mars through powerful telescopes it appeared to be a mysterious planet. Our early flybys of this planet revealed a terrain full of dirt and rocks. However, we were not convinced so we sent Rover there. The little robotic vehicle traversed the topography sending back pictures and data and guess what? – more dirt and rocks. However, we were not convinced so we sent Phoenix there. It landed safely and started analyzing the soil and sending beautifully detailed images of a Martian landscape full of … dirt and rocks.

    But wait, this is different. The Phoenix landed in the North Pole area in the hopes of discovering life. Its little sensors microscopically scrutinized the soil and made an amazing discovery. Mars is still full of dirt and rocks. But wait, this is different. The dirt has a pattern to it.

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