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Poring over Mars pictures

NASA / Univ. of Ariz.
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The folks behind NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have put out pictures of the area where the Mars Polar Lander disappeared nine years ago - and are inviting people to see if they can find it.

Back in 2005, the pros thought they saw signs of the lander in lower-resolution imagery, but they retracted the claim months later. So far, MRO has not turned up a smoking gun, or a smoking crater. Nevertheless, it's continuing the search.

Mars Polar Lander was due to reach the Red Planet's south polar region in 1999, but it went out of contact during its descent from the surface and was never heard from again. Investigators surmised that a glitch with the spacecraft's thruster system led to a catastrophically hard landing.

Coming after the failure of NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter, the lander's loss forced a makeover of NASA's Mars exploration program. Several missions had to be shifted around. In fact, Phoenix Mars Lander, which is due to set down in Mars' north polar region on May 25, is a retooled incarnation of a 2001 lander that was put on hold. The instruments on board are upgraded versions of Mars Polar Lander's hardware. 

NASA
Mars Polar Lander, shown in this
artist's conception, disappeared
during its descent in 1999.


The latest search for the lost lander doesn't have official status, said Ari Espinoza, a member of the Web team for MRO's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE. That means spacecraft sleuths shouldn't expect NASA or the HiRISE team to follow up on any leads they come up with.

But if there's strong evidence that the lander has actually been found, go ahead and post a link to the photos as a comment on the HiRISE team's blog - as well as at UnmannedSpaceflight.com, a discussion forum often frequented by Mars-savvy scientists.

If the unofficial search turns up something worth investigating more officially, "we'd be very happy with that," Espinoza told me. Just be sure to read NASA's guide to finding junk on Mars as well as the HiRISE blog comments. That will keep you from wasting your time on an analysis of bogus cosmic-ray hits or lower-resolution HiRISE imagery.

You'll find more pictures of Mars to pore over in the HiRISE image catalog, as well as in our latest edition of "The Month in Space Pictures." The images titled "Alien Dunes" and "Going Splat on Mars" are from the HiRISE catalog. That's where you'll find larger images suitable for use as computer wallpaper or printed photographs.

Here's a listing of other places where you can get bigger images and more information about the cosmic views seen in this month's roundup: