Did UA Mars Camera Find Lost Spacecraft?
The HiRISE camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been imaging the planet's surface since 2006.
April 11, 2013
By Alfred McEwen/HiRISE, Guy Webster/JPL and Daniel Stolte/UANews, April 11, 2013
Hardware from a Soviet spacecraft that went silent only seconds after
making the first successful soft landing on Mars in 1971 might appear in
images taken by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance
In 1971, the former Soviet Union launched the Mars 2 and Mars 3 missions
to Mars. Each consisted of an orbiter plus a lander. Both orbiter missions
were successful, although the surface of Mars was obscured by a
planet-encircling dust storm. The Mars 2 lander crashed, but Mars 3 became
the first successful soft landing on the Red Planet. Unfortunately, after
just 14.5 seconds transmission from the lander stopped, for unknown
This set of images from the HiRISE camera shows what might be hardware from the Soviet Union's 1971 Mars 3 lander,
found by an Internet group of Russian citizen enthusiasts. See text for a link to a larger version of this image.
Now, Russian citizen enthusiasts following NASA's Curiosity rover
identified what may be the Soviet Mars 3 lander hardware while poring over
high-resolution photos taken with the High Resolution Imaging Science
Experiment, or HiRISE camera, operated by the University of Arizona
Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.
Mounted on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter,
or MRO, the camera has been imaging the Martian surface since 2006.
The features in the image resemble four pieces of hardware from the Soviet
Mars 3 mission: the parachute, heat shield, terminal retrorocket and
lander. A follow-up image by the orbiter from last month shows the same
Images of the possible Mars 3 features are available on the
UA HiRISE website and the
NASA JPL Photojournal.
The predicted landing site was at latitude 45 degrees south, longitude 202
degree east, in Ptolemaeus Crater. The HiRISE camera acquired a large
image at this location in November 2007. This image contains 1.8 billion
pixels of data, so about 2,500 typical computer screens would be needed to
view the entire image at full resolution. Promising candidates for the
hardware from Mars 3 were found only very recently.
Tasked with taking pictures of the Martian surface and measure properties of the atmosphere and soil,
the Mars 2 and Mars 3 missions consisted of identical spacecraft, each with a bus/orbiter module and
an attached descent/lander module. Mars 2 crashed. Mars 3 made a successful touchdown, but stopped
transmitting after 14.5 seconds for unknown reasons.
Vitali Erogov from Russia is the founder and administrator of the largest
Russian Internet community about Curiosity. Subscribers of this community
engaged in the preliminary search for Mars 3 via crowdsourcing. Expected
hardware included the parachute, the heat shield, the terminal brake
rocket and the actual lander.
Erogov made scale models of what each piece should look like at the HiRISE
image scale and carefully searched the many small features in this large
image, finding what appear to be viable candidates in the southern part of
the scene. Each candidate has a size and shape consistent with the
expected hardware, and they are arranged on the surface as expected from
the entry, descent and landing sequence.
One of the group's advisors was Alexander "Sasha" Basilevsky, who is well
known to the international science community. Basilevsky contacted Alfred
McEwen, principal investigator for HiRISE, suggesting a follow-up image.
MRO acquired this image on March 10. The image was targeted to cover some
of the hardware candidates in color and to get a second look with
different illumination angles, to provide more information. No color
anomalies are seen in the images, which is understandable after more than
40 years of dust deposition. Meanwhile, Basilevsky and Erogov contacted
Russian engineers and scientists who worked on Mars 3 for some more
The candidate parachute is the most distinctive and unusual feature in the
images. It is an especially bright spot for this region, about 25 feet in
diameter. The parachute would have a diameter of about 36 feet if fully
spread out over the surface, so this is consistent. In the second HiRISE
image, the parachute appears to have brightened over much of its surface,
probably due to its better illumination over the sloping surface, but it
is also possible that the parachute brightened in the intervening years
because dust was removed.
HiRISE recently showed that the Curiosity parachute has shifted in the
wind, which might also kick off dust. Since the parachute from Viking
Lander 1 (1976) can still be seen as a bright area, it is reasonable that
a slightly older parachute would also remain visible, perhaps because dust
is kicked off.
"The bright spot is definitely an unusual feature," said McEwen. "There is
no similar feature anywhere else on these images, which we would expect if
it was a natural bright spot of some sort. In the second image with more
overhead illumination, it is clearly the brightest spot here."
McEwen added that it differs from the parachutes used by U.S. Mars landers
because it isn't elongated due to the lateral velocity of the backshell
attached to the parachute. The Soviet design resulted in a vertical
descent that is expected to leave a more circular parachute on the ground.
The descent module or retrorocket was attached to the lander container by
a chain, and the candidate feature has the right size and even shows a
linear extension that could be a chain. Erogov was later informed that at
a length length of slightly under 15 feet, the chain is a good match to
the line in the image (almost 16 feet). This might have resulted from
dragging the chain and disturbing the surface. Nearby the candidate
descent module is a feature with the right size and shape to be the actual
lander, with four open petals.
The image of the candidate heat shield matches a shield-shaped object with
the right size that is partly buried.
"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," McEwen
said. "Further analysis of the data and future images to better understand
the 3-dimensional shapes may help to confirm this interpretation."
"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
HiRISE, operated by the UA, was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies
Corp., Boulder, Colo. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Project and
Curiosity are managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena,
Calif., for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL is a
division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.