Help Find the Mars Polar Lander!

Article written: 9 Jul , 2009
Updated: 26 Apr , 2016

The Mars Polar Lander was supposed to be a mission to the Red Planet’s south polar region to study the climate, weather and the ever-changing polar cap. But the spacecraft went missing in December of 1999 after entering Mars atmosphere, and its disappearance has been a mystery. Attempts at finding the presumably crashed lander using images from the Mars Global Surveyor have been unsuccessful. But now we have the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and its powerful HiRISE Camera. A new campaign has begun to try and find the Mars Polar Lander, and the best thing about it is that you can help!

UPDATE: I’ve been contacted by several people wondering what they should do if they think they find something in the image. The HiRISE blog has instructions: contact the HiRISE folks with this form, or add to the comments in a previous HiRISE blog post.

HiRISE has been successful in imaging missions like the Mars Exploration Rovers and the Phoenix lander – as the location of those spacecrafts have been known. But now’s the chance to use HiRISE’s eyes to look for an object whose location is unknown.

“This HiRISE image is one of a sequence searching for either the parachute or the crumpled lander on the ground,” say the folks on the HiRISE website. “However, we expect the debris from this mission to be covered with dust and ice, making it a challenge to identify them. The more eyes that search these images the better, so try your luck!”

Click the image for a larger version, or find even larger versions on the HiRISE website.

The terrain seen here appears to be composed of alternating layers of clean and dust-laden ice. Most of the surface is covered with patches of small channels. It is thought that these have been carved by vaporized ice. On Mars, the ice goes straight to a gas (a process called “sublimation”) rather than first melting. So, as the ice heats in the spring and summer, gas is generated and flows under the remaining ice. This flowing gas can move dust and slowly carve a small channels.

The lander was to touch down on the southern polar layered terrain, between 73°S and 76°S in the region, Planum Australe less than 1,000 km from the south pole, near the edge of the carbon dioxide ice cap in Mars’ late southern spring.

So what could have happened to the spacecraft? It has been speculated that either the thrusters failed as it began to land. Or perhaps the landing sequence failed entirely, and when the legs were deployed the software accidently reported that the lander was on the ground, cutting the parachute while the lander was actually hundreds of feet in the air. Bummer.

But the only way to know for sure it to find the remains of the spacecraft. So let’s get searching! And watch for more images from HiRISE to look for the lost MPL.

Source: HiRISE

15 Responses

  1. As soon as I posted this article, I found out the HiRISE website is currently down… check back again soon!


  2. Sili says

    Won’t the parachute have blown halfway around the planet by now?

  3. Aqua says

    Nancy…. As you’ve probably heard by now, there has been a cyber attack on many Gov’t and industrial sites within the last couple days. Last night on the late news the story was that the attack apparently originated from N. Korea…. go figure.

  4. Feenixx says

    I just had a quick scan through the original greyscale image.
    I gave up very quickly. After a couple of minutes, I could see all sorts of things…. like the face of Elvis…. or was it Jim Morrison?

  5. Lola says

    Say I find something odd in the picture…….what would be the next step?

  6. Jon Hanford says

    I’m wondering what size crater the actual spacecraft may have made. I know many variables go into this calculation (surface type, impact velocity, angle of impact, meteorology etc.). Just what is the best assumption of the size (and depth) of the impact site? What are the long term effects of the weather in this region of Mars? Does it look like the face of Jim Morrison? 🙂

  7. Dark Gnat says

    Found Jimmy Hoffa, and my missing socks but no MPL.

  8. robbinewman says

    OK..downloaded this particular image and done a hires photoshop search…identified lots of anomalies.

    What then?
    Is this image the only option?
    What would be the project scale of any object of that mass?


  9. rpsms says

    The details for the photo claim about 26 cm per pixel, I have also read that hirise has a resolution of approx. 30 cm per pixel.

    Googling mars polar lander gives a dimension of about 12 feet, and it is not square.

    12 feet in cm = 365 divided by 30cm/pixel gives you about 12 pixels.

    Set a brush in your image software to 12 pixels wide, and make a mark on the margin of the image. That is the max size of the lander. make another one 6 pixels, anything between those two sizes is probably what you will be looking for.

  10. dd611 says

    If this can be done to find a small craft on mars why has this not been done with looking at the moons supposed landing sites? Everyone seems to shy away from this question or make excuses on how difficult this would be or it’s impossible or hubble is not powerful enough to pick up any landing sites etc.,etc.
    This is probably because there are no landing sites to look at!!

  11. Solarsail says


    Are you referring to the Apollo manned landing sites? (11, 12, 14-17)

    There are several reasons why this effort (to find MPL) is currently in progress instead of spotting the Apollo sites. Firstly, MRO (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) is orbiting Mars, so it is only generating high-detail maps of Mars’ surface. Not the Moon.

    Secondly, nobody knows what happened to MPL. The mission was lost. Contact was never reestablished after it entered the upper atmosphere, and there’s not even an official story as to why. The Apollo missions were manned, and all returned to Earth, so we have those accounts and data to describe what happened. The main motive then to look at (not for, the locations for the landers are known well from radio and other means during the missions so spotting the decent stages again would only require a picture to be taken of those spots with a sufficiently high resolution for the decent stages to occupy several pixels) those sites then is to verify that the missions were indeed carried out as the world watched… Instead of faked. Or a verification of an official story.

    MPL has no official story.

    Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, LRO is now in orbit around the Moon (as you may have read from this site). It will be capable of taking images of the Lunar surface to a resolution somewhat similar to what MRO can take of Mars. So it will be capable, among many other things, of imaging the Apollo landing sites. And being in a polar orbit will pass over each of them several times over the course of it’s mission. IIRC, NASA is planning on imaging the landing sites at those times, since it will not interfere with other activities performed by the craft, and the images would be of some value to the public. Largely nostalgic.

    However conspiracy theorists will likely disregard those images as faked, since they will be taken by the same NASA that originally flew to The Moon. Nobody doubts the first world war happened, nobody doubts America was once under British rule. But people doubt Neil Armstrong and Edward (Buzz) Aldwin landed on the moon on July 20, 1969.

  12. Jon Hanford says

    dd611 wrote “This is probably because there are no landing sites to look at!!” referring to the Apollo lunar landings. If this is true, who left several laser retroreflectors on the moon (and the Soviets had a retroreflector on one of their Lunakhods)? Laser ranging of the moon using the retroreflectors began soon after they were deployed and are still in use today. The laser rangefinders were/are still famous for making measurements of the moon’s distance to within a few centimeters. So how did those retroreflectors get there??

  13. Jon Hanford says

    @dd611, check out the Wiki page & links about the Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment here: .

  14. Nereid says

    @Jon Hanford: the retroreflectors are really quite compelling, if only because any conspiracy theorist (CT) can build their own laser+telescope system and verify that *something* is reflecting laser pulses from those locations on the Moon, and the strengths of the reflections matches that which would be expected from such retroreflectors!

    It’s true that such equipment would not be cheap, and the technical expertise required likely exceeds that of any CT, but then the value of independently, and objectively, finding no reflections (per CT claims) should surely be more than worth the effort to try …

  15. Jon Hanford says

    @Nereid: From star parties hosted by my local astronomy club to hosting ‘visitors night’ at OSU’s Perkins Observatory, I found the retroreflector argument usually the most persuasive with the general public when asked about the lunar landings. Most were unaware of these devices and it just made sense to them. A few diehard CT visitors were of course convinced that this experiment, too, was a hoax. But that was in the 70’s & 80’s. As you point out, hardcore amateurs these days can buy, build, or rent a decent size scope , coupled with state-of-the-art CCDs and a sufficiently powerful laser and could indeed check this out for themselves. Costly? Sure (the laser would probably be the most expensive component). Might need a permit for a sufficiently powerful laser, too. I’m not sure of the wattages of the lasers used for these measurements. The following link mentions that the first laser used on the retroreflectors was from Lick Observatory and was only used to see if a useful reflection signal could be obtained. See History of Laser Ranging and MLRS here: for more details of this little known program 🙂

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