NASA and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) today said researchers from the two agencies will continue a joint review of the initial results of NIMA's search for the missing Mars Polar Lander. This analysis is extremely challenging, and has thus far produced no definitive conclusions.
NIMA researchers used high resolution imagery from NASA's Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft, now in orbit around the Red Planet, in their effort to locate the lander and its components, including a protective aeroshell, heat shield and parachute.
One of the principal challenges in locating the missing lander using images from the orbiter is that the Mars Polar Lander is only somewhat larger -- about six and a half feet across -- than the smallest objects the orbiter's camera can see on the surface of Mars.
In an initial analysis, NIMA researchers reviewed and assessed features seen in several images that they believe could be indicative of the lander and its protective aeroshell. An alternative view presented by NASA is that these features could be noise introduced by the camera system, so further work between NASA and NIMA will be conducted to address differences of interpretation.
Both agencies intend to continue working together on the analysis of these images and of additional images of the landing site, which will be collected later this year.
The Mars Polar Lander was lost during its attempted landing on Mars, Dec. 3, 1999. Within two weeks, NASA began obtaining high resolution images of the intended landing site using the camera onboard the orbiting Mars Global Surveyor in an attempt to locate the lander on the Martian surface. No sign of the Mars Polar Lander was found in the NASA searches. In an independent search, starting about the same time, NASA and NIMA began working together to analyze images of the planet's surface.
NIMA, a Combat Support Agency of the Department of Defense and a member of the National Intelligence Community, provides imagery intelligence and geospatial information in support of national security objectives. Headquartered in Bethesda, MD, NIMA operates major facilities in northern Virginia; Washington, DC; and St. Louis, MO.
Previously, Attempts to find evidence of landers in Surveyor images has been helped by having extensive ground observations to match up features and narrow down guesstimates.
There have been three successful Mars lander missions: Viking 1 (July 1976), Viking 2 (September 1976), and Mars Pathfinder (July 1997). Of these, the location of Mars Pathfinder is known the best because there are several distinct landmarks visible in the lander's images that help in locating the spacecraft.
The MGS MOC Operations Team at Malin Space Science Systems has been tasked since mid-December 1999 with looking for the lost Polar Lander. Part of this effort has been to test the capabilities of MOC by taking a picture of the landing site of Mars Pathfinder.
An attempt to photograph the Pathfinder site was made once before, in April 1998, by turning the entire MGS spacecraft so that the camera could point at the known location of the Mars Pathfinder lander.
Turning the MGS spacecraft like this is not a normal operation---it takes considerable planning, and disrupts the on-going, normal acquisition of science data.
It took 3 attempts to succeed, but on April 22, 1998, MOC acquired the picture seen on the left side of Figure A, above. The three near-by major landmarks that were visible to the Pathfinder's cameras are labeled here (North Peak, Big Crater, Twin Peaks).
It was known at the time that this image was not adequate to see the Pathfinder lander because the camera was not in focus and had a resolution of only 3.3 meters (11 ft) per pixel. In this and all other images shown here, north is up. All views of the 1998 MOC image are illuminated from the lower right, all views of the 2000 MOC image are illuminated from the lower left. As part of the Polar Lander search effort, the Mars Pathfinder site was targeted again in December 1999 and January 2000. Like the 1998 attempt, the spacecraft had to be pointed off of its normal, nadir (straight-down) view. Like history repeating itself, it once again took 3 tries before the Pathfinder landing site was hit. For more details on the search for Mars Pathfinder click here.
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NIMA: The Eyes of the Nation
Washington (AFPS) Feb. 19, 2001
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