Piles of debris from decades of research could jeopardize future missions

(ORDO NEWS) — Humans have been exploring the surface of Mars for over 50 years. Countries have sent 18 artificial objects to Mars in 14 separate missions, according to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs.

Many of these missions are still ongoing, but over the decades of exploration of Mars, mankind has left behind a lot of debris on the surface of the planet.

I’m a postdoctoral fellow researching ways to track Mars and the Moon. all-terrain vehicles. In mid-August 2022, NASA confirmed that the Perseverance rover found a piece of debris thrown overboard during landing, this time a tangled mesh.

And this is not the first time scientists have found debris on Mars. This is because there are many of them.

Where does garbage come from?

Debris on Mars comes from three main sources: discarded equipment, an inactive spacecraft, and a crashed spacecraft.

Every mission to the Martian surface requires a module to protect the spacecraft. This module includes a heat shield as the ship passes through the planet’s atmosphere, as well as a parachute and landing equipment so it can land softly.

The ship drops parts of the module as it descends, and these parts can land in different places on the surface of the planet – in one place there may be a lower heat shield, and in another – a parachute.

When this piece hits the ground, it can break into smaller pieces, as happened during the Perseverance rover landing in 2021. These little pieces can be blown away by the Martian wind.

Over the years, many small windblown debris have been found, such as the recently found mesh material.

Earlier that year, on June 13, 2022, the Perseverance rover discovered a large, shiny thermal blanket wedged into rocks 1.25 miles (2 km) from where the rover landed. Both Curiosity in 2012 and Opportunity in 2005 also encountered debris from their landers.

Dead and crashed spaceships

Nine inactive spacecraft on the surface of Mars make up the following type of debris. These are the Mars 3 lander, the Mars 6 lander, the Viking 1 lander, the Viking 2 lander, the Sojourner rover, the previously lost Beagle 2 lander, the Phoenix lander, the Spirit rover, and the recently lost Opportunity spacecraft. Mostly untouched, they are better considered historical relics than rubbish.

Wear and tear is taking its toll on everything on the Martian surface. Some parts of the Curiosity’s aluminum wheels have chipped off and are presumably scattered in the rover’s wake.

Piles of debris from decades of research could jeopardize future missions
The Curiosity rover’s wheels have been damaged over the years, leaving small pieces of aluminum

Some of the debris is targeted: in July 2021, Perseverance dropped a drill bit to the surface, allowing it to be replaced with a new, intact bit so it can continue to collect samples.

Crashed spaceships and their parts are another important source of debris. At least two spacecraft crashed and four more lost contact before or shortly after landing. A safe descent to the planet’s surface is the hardest part of any Mars landing mission, and it doesn’t always end well.

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

Why does garbage matter?

Today, scientists’ main concern about debris on Mars is the risk it poses to current and future missions.

The Perseverance teams document any debris they find and check to see if it could contaminate the samples the rover collects.

NASA engineers also considered whether Perseverance could become entangled in debris on landing, but concluded that the risk was low. The real reason the debris on Mars is important is because it has an important place in history.

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