60-Second Space

Amateur Astronomers Spot Missing Russian Mars Lander

Using imagery taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2007, amateur astronomers located an object that could be a Russian lander that went dark after a few seconds on Mars in 1971. John Matson reports

For a brief moment, it was the robot king of Mars. Then it shut down unexpectedly and was lost for good.

Back in 1971 the Soviet lander Mars 3 scored the first soft landing on the Red Planet. But it operated for only about 15 seconds and then failed. Since that time, Mars 3 has been little more than an historic interplanetary paperweight, its exact resting place unknown.

Now a team of amateur researchers may have located the defunct lander. Using imagery taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2007, the searchers spotted an object that could be Mars 3. Nearby they also turned up what may be the lander’s descent module and heat shield, as well as an unusually bright spot that could be the parachute. All four items are in the expected landing area.

A follow-up photo of the region acquired by the NASA orbiter in March has strengthened the case. But the researchers will keep poring over the available imagery to make sure. Unfortunately there’s no way to get a closer look. Because the current robot king of Mars, the Curiosity rover, is thousands of kilometers away.

—John Matson

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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