A super-powerful camera orbiting Mars may help discover the fate of long-lost spacecraft that never phoned home after reaching the red planet.
NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is now circling that puzzling world, equipped to assist in determining whether life ever arose on the red planet and characterize its climate and geology, as well as prepare for future expeditionary crews to land there.
But another sharp-shooting skill of MRO is catching sight of past probes — craft that ran into trouble and died in the line of Mars duty.
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The MRO is outfitted with an array of equipment, including the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera, built to provide the most detailed view of Mars' surface to date.
From Mars orbit, the MRO can take zoom-in images of objects on the surface of the planet, checking out features that are about the size of a small dining-room table.
NASA's Mars Polar Lander was shot toward the Red Planet in January of 1999, only to be lost on December 3 of that same year as the probe neared its South Pole exploration target.
What truly happened to the craft and its exact whereabouts remain at best guesses.
An investigation of the loss concluded that the most probable cause of the failure was due to the generation of bogus signals when the craft's legs were deployed high above the Martian landscape.
Those spurious signals are thought to have produced a false indication that the spacecraft's outstretched legs had actually reached Mars.
That misread of its true altitude may have resulted in Mars Polar Lander prematurely shutting down its set of descent engines.
Then, it is thought, the craft fell to an ugly ending within Mars' South Pole region.
"We'll search for Mars Polar Lander when the lighting conditions are good. Right now it's too dark down there," said Alfred McEwen, director of the Planetary Image Research Lab at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
He is MRO's HiRISE principal investigator.
As for when the first opportunity to utilize HiRISE to look for Mars Polar Lander, McEwen told SPACE.com that he hasn't focused on a time frame as yet.
"It's a matter of both illumination angle and atmospheric conditions."
The Mars Polar Lander site is on the edge of polar night right now, as Mars is not quite half-way through its southern winter, explained Richard Zurek, the MRO's project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Zurek said that even when spring comes again to Mars' southern hemisphere on Mars — February 8, 2007 — the seasonal snows, made largely of frozen carbon dioxide, will still cover the high southern latitudes.
These won't be gone from the area until the latter part of May of next year, he added.
"Right now, MRO is focusing on the high northern latitudes, providing information for the Phoenix mission to use in selecting their landing site," Zurek told SPACE.com.
That will be the main focus for MRO until the end of the calendar year, he said, as Mars moves into late northern winter and observing conditions deteriorate over the north polar area.
NASA's Phoenix lander is to be launched next year, the first in a series of Scout-class spacecraft. It is also a resurrected Mars Polar Lander mission, but this time headed for Mars' water-ice-rich northern polar region.
One busy bird
Early next year the focus will shift to looking at Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) candidate sites, Zurek pointed out. MSL is a hefty wheeled rover to be dispatched to the Red Planet in 2009.
"MRO will look at a few of those even before the end of the year, as southern spring and summer are seasons when dust suspended in the atmosphere is more extensive and opaque," Zurek continued. "Of course, unless there is a planet-encircling storm this year, there will still be good seeing over many areas, but local activity and regional storms introduce a more random element and a more diffuse background haze. So MRO will try to get an early look in areas that are more prone to obscuring dust activity."
It's clear that the MRO is going to be one busy bird as Mars researchers hope to work through a list of roughly 50 or more Mars Science Laboratory targets prior to a landing site workshop in October 2007.
Zurek said that scientists also hope to snag some early views of the Viking Lander 2 site. That NASA spacecraft successfully set down in Mars' Utopia Planitia in early September of 1976. Doing so will help calibrate interpretations of higher latitude data being collected for the Phoenix lander mission, he said.
"We also hope to get back for a second view of Victoria Crater to pair with the one just taken in order to produce a stereo image before lighting conditions change too much," Zurek said.
NASA's Opportunity Mars rover has wheeled itself into position to begin studies of that large feature.
The space agency's other doing-just-fine Mars rover, Spirit, is also a likely target — but one that is not as urgent as some of the other MRO targets on the "to do" list, he observed.
But first the MRO must focus on the near-term needs of Phoenix and Mars Science Laboratory, Zurek emphasized.
"And second, we should not forget that MRO is supposed to do more than look at places that we already know. It also seeks new places that may prove to be even better destinations for future missions and to test our present understanding with new data as we explore more of the diverse planet that is Mars," he added.
Beagle 2 wreckage?
Similar to the Mars Polar Lander loss was the plight of the British-built Beagle 2 probe.
It was deployed from the European Space Agency's Mars Express on Dec. 19, 2003. Mars Express remains busy at work as it orbits the planet.
Beagle 2 was targeted to land in Isidis Planitia, with parachutes and airbags to cushion its touchdown.
The probe was a science instrument-packed 152-pound (69-kilogram) device that never uttered a peep from the surface of Mars.
"Depending on our success with Mars Polar Lander — and with landers with fairly well-known locations — we will eventually try for Beagle 2, but that is a much greater challenge due to its smaller size and the greater uncertainty of its landing ellipse," Zurek said, noting that his opinions are his own and do not represent the view or policy of JPL.
Indeed, it might be a stretch for MRO to spot Beagle 2, as it is only a few feet wide.
Late last year, Beagle 2 wreckage was thought found in imagery relayed from NASA's Mars Global Surveyor — claimed by some to show that the craft came close to success.
But others in the Mars photo-interpretation community contend that no incontrovertible evidence exists in imagery to support Beagle 2 being discovered.
"MRO may hopefully resolve what happened to Beagle 2," explained Mark Sims, the project's mission manager at the Space Research Center's department of physics and astronomy at the University of Leicester in England.
The MRO has enough resolution to perhaps directly image the lander and certainly enough to image any debris or components, like airbags, parachutes, etc.
That's assuming such gear is not covered by dust. Nearly three years after Beagle 2's failed landing, dusted-over hardware may no longer be recognizable, Sims told SPACE.com.
"We understand that the HiRISE team intends to image the Beagle 2 landing ellipse at some point in the mission," Sims said.
However, for obvious reasons, he added, doing so is not a high priority for MRO, given top-of-the-checklist need to image sites for Phoenix, Mars Science Laboratory and other future missions.
"We, however, look forward to what MRO might detect as it would be good to ascertain how close to a successful landing Beagle 2 came," Sims noted.
Using the MRO as a spotter scope for vanished Mars probes is on the schedule.
But the spacecraft also totes another "eye spy" device for finding spacecraft gone astray.
Along with HiRISE, the MRO's Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) is up and operating.
One of six science instruments aboard the MRO, it is able to identify minerals on the surface of Mars. CRISM investigations are being led by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
Spacecraft hard landings, like in the case for Beagle 2, can churn up a rather large area of soil in the process. CRISM might locate signs of different minerals in the upturned crash spot that don't match those of the surrounding terrain.
JPL's Zurek said that this kind of CRISM data would be like having a mineral fingerprint pointing to the spot where Beagle 2 plopped down.
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