Mars is littered with 15,694 pounds of human debris from 50 years of robotic exploration

Mars is littered with 15,694 pounds of human debris from 50 years of robotic exploration

Is minic a thagann Rovers ar Mars trasna ar bhruscar – mar an sciath teasa agus an earraigh seo – óna gcuid misin féin nó misin eile.  <a href=NASA/JPL-Caltech” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTQ4NQ–/ f4tNQImahVHAlLjFqfcA–~B/aD05OTA7dz0xNDQwO2FwcGlkPXl0YWNoeW9u/″ data-src=” /YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTQ4NQ–/–~B/aD05OTA7dz0xNDQwO2FwcGlkPXl0YWNoeW9u/″/ >
Rovers on Mars often come across debris – such as this heat shield and spring – from their own or other missions. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Humans have been exploring the surface of Mars for over 50 years. According to the United Nations Office for Space Affairs, 18 human objects have been sent to Mars over 14 separate missions. Many of these missions are still ongoing, but over the years of Martian exploration, humanity has left many pieces of debris on the planet’s surface.

I am a postdoctoral research fellow studying ways to track Mars and Moon rovers. In mid-August 2022, NASA confirmed that the Mars Perseverance rover spotted a piece of debris that had landed during its landing, this time a net-filled mess. And this is not the first time scientists have found trash on Mars. That’s because there are many.

Scaoileann gach spásárthach a thuirlingíonn ar Mars trealamh - cosúil leis an bhlaosc cosanta seo - ar a mbealach go dtí an dromchla Martian.  <a href=NASA/JPL-Caltech” data-src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTUxMw–/ 1.2/wwVf7RyRhVbenwsEenKB0A–~B/aD0xMDQ3O3c9MTQ0MDthcHBpZD15dGFjaHlvbg–/″/>
All spacecraft that land on Mars drop equipment – like this protective shell – on their way to the Martian surface. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Where does the debris come from?

Debris on Mars comes from three main sources: spent hardware, inactive spacecraft and crashed spacecraft.

Each mission to the Martian surface requires a module that protects the spacecraft. This module includes a heat shield for when the craft passes through the planet’s atmosphere and a parachute and landing hardware so it can land softly.

The craft sheds pieces of the module as it descends, and these pieces can land in different places on the planet’s surface – a lower heat shield in one place and a parachute in another. When this debris hits the ground, it can break into smaller pieces, as happened during the landing of the Perseverance rover in 2021. These small pieces can then be blown around by the Marga wind.

Tháinig an rover Perseverance trasna ar an bpíosa líonta seo an 12 Iúil 2022, níos mó ná bliain tar éis dó teacht i dtír ar Mars.  <a href=NASA/JPL-Caltech” data-src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTUyNw–/ ZwNenfeAv.48AIo9lUAJVg–~B/aD0xMDc2O3c9MTQ0MDthcHBpZD15dGFjaHlvbg–/″/>
The Perseverance rover came across this patch of net on July 12, 2022, more than a year after landing on Mars. NASA/JPL-Caltech

A lot of small wind debris has been found over the years – like the recently found fill material. Earlier in the year, on June 13, 2022, the Persistence rover spotted a large, shiny thermal wedge blanket in some rocks 1.25 miles (2 km) from where the rover landed. Curiosity in 2012 and Opportunity in 2005 also encountered debris from their landing vehicles.

Bhuail lander Schiaparelli de chuid Ghníomhaireacht Spáis na hEorpa ar dhromchla Mars in 2016, mar atá le feiceáil sna grianghraif seo den láthair tuairteála a ghlac Orbiter Taiscéalaíochta Mars de chuid NASA.  <a href=NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. Arizona” data-src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTg5NA–/ 1.2/a.ajAUdDiQ.Ahmg88dAdUA–~B/aD0xODI3O3c9MTQ0MDthcHBpZD15dGFjaHlvbg–/″/>
The European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander hit the surface of Mars in 2016, as seen in these photos of the crash site taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Dead and crashed spacecraft

The next type of debris is the nine inactive spacecraft on the surface of Mars. These craft are the Mars lander 3, Mars lander 6, Viking Lander 1, Viking Lander 2, the Sojourner rover, the previously lost Beagle 2 lander, the Phoenix lander, the Spirit Rover and the most recently found spacecraft death, the Opportunity rover. Mostly safe, these would be better historical relics than trash.

Wear and tear takes its toll on everything on the Martian surface. Some parts of Curiosity’s aluminum wheels are broken and likely scattered along the rover’s track. Some of the debris has a purpose, and Perseverance put a drill bit on the surface in July 2021, allowing swap in new, pristine bits so he could continue collecting samples.

Tá damáiste déanta ag rothaí an rover Curiosity thar na blianta, rud a fhágann píosaí beaga alúmanaim taobh thiar de.  <a href=NASA/JPL-Caltech” data-src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTUyOQ–/ uRJTuZVijNmfTT1GW7zGUw–~B/aD0xMDgwO3c9MTQ0MDthcHBpZD15dGFjaHlvbg–/″/>
The wheels of the Curiosity rover have been damaged over the years, leaving behind small pieces of aluminum. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Another significant source of debris is broken spacecraft and their pieces. At least two spacecraft have crashed, and four more have come into contact with each other before or just after landing. The hardest part of any Mars landing mission is landing safely on the planet’s surface – and it doesn’t always end well.

When you add up the mass of all the spacecraft ever sent to Mars, you get about 22,000 pounds (9979 kilograms). Subtract the weight of the craft currently operating on the surface – 6,306 pounds (2,860 kilograms) – and you’re left with 15,694 pounds (7,119 kilograms) of human debris on Mars.

Why is litter important?

Today, scientists’ main concern about debris on Mars is the risk it poses to current and future missions. The Persistence teams are documenting all the debris they find and checking to see if any could contaminate the samples the rover is collecting. NASA engineers also considered the possibility of permanence becoming entangled in debris from the landing but believe the risk is low.

The real reason that debris on Mars is important is because of its place in history. The spacecraft and its parts are the initial milestones of human planetary exploration.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent, non-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Cagri Kilic, West Virginia University. The Conversation has a variety of interesting free newsletters.

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Cagri Kilic does not work for any company or organization that would benefit from this article, does not consult with, shares in or is funded by any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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