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Mars Polar Lander

Mars Polar Lander mission graphic

Mars Polar Lander

Phase: Past

Launch Date: January 03, 1999

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Program(s):Mars Exploration

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The Mars Surveyor '98 program was comprised of two spacecraft launched separately, the Mars Climate Orbiter (formerly the Mars Surveyor '98 Orbiter) and the Mars Polar Lander (formerly the Mars Surveyor '98 Lander). They were designed to study the Martian weather, climate, and water and carbon dioxide budget.

The goal of MPL was to soft land, under propulsive power, near the edges of the south polar ice cap on Mars and to use cameras, a robotic arm and several sophisticated instruments to measure the Martian soil composition.

The Mars Polar Lander was to touch down on the southern polar layered terrain, between 73 S and 76 S, less than 1000 km from the south pole, near the edge of the carbon dioxide ice cap in Mars' late southern spring. This terrain appears to be composed of alternating layers of clean and dust-laden ice, and may represent a long-term record of the climate, as well as an important volatile reservoir.

The mission had as its primary science objectives to:

  1. record local meteorological conditions near the martian south pole, including temperature, pressure, humidity, wind, surface frost, ground ice evolution, ice fogs, haze, and suspended dust,
  2. analyze samples of the polar deposits for volatiles, particularly water and carbon dioxide,
  3. dig trenches and image the interior to look for seasonal layers and analyze soil samples for water, ice, hydrates, and other aqueously deposited minerals,
  4. image the regional and immediate landing site surroundings for evidence of climate changes and seasonal cycles, and
  5. obtain multi-spectral images of local regolith to determine soil types and composition.

These goals were to be accomplished using a number of scientific instruments, including a Mars Volatiles and Climate Surveyor (MVACS) instrument package which was comprised of a robotic arm and attached camera, mast-mounted surface stereo imager and meteorology package, and a gas analyzer. In addition, a Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) was planned to capture regional views from parachute deployment at about 8 km altitude down to the landing. The Russian Space Agency provided a laser ranger (LIDAR) package for the lander, which would be used to measure dust and haze in the Martian atmosphere. A miniature microphone was also on board to record sounds on Mars. Attached to the lander spacecraft were a pair of small probes, the Deep Space 2 Mars Microprobes, which were to be deployed to fall and penetrate beneath the martian surface when the spacecraft reached Mars.

The spacecraft was launched January 3, 1999; unfortunately, no signal was received from the spacecraft upon arrival at Mars on December 3, 1999. The communication loss and the ultimate fate of the spacecraft remains a mystery. However, like the mythical bird for which it is named, the Mars Scout mission Phoenix has “risen from the ashes” and carries several of the instruments developed for Mars Polar Lander.