The Loss of Mars Polar Lander
The Polar Lander was the first attempt to land on Mars since the Mars Pathfinder mission of 1997. The cruise stage of the Polar Lander contained the two Deep Space 2 Microprobes, “Amundsen and Scott” (named for the South polar explorers of Earth) The lander and microprobes were in excellent health during launch and the nine-month transit to Mars. On December 3rd, 1999, about ten minutes before it was expected to land on the south polar region of Mars (the first time a mission had been sent to that region), the lander lost contact with Earth and it was never regained. JPL scientists are currently determining what happened to the lander; it’s assumed that it crashed on the Martian surface. The microprobes also never were located and its assumed that they were destroyed on impact (one of them was projected to hit the side of a crater wall, a dangerous target because of the rocky terrain).
The Polar Lander’s Mission
The Polar Lander was to carry out a 90 day primary mission followed by an extended mission lasting until a terminal hardware failure. The theme of the Polar Lander mission was “Volatiles and Climate History” on Mars. The lander would have searched for surface ice and possible signs of regular climate change. It would also have looked for physical evidence of the seasonal cycles of water, carbon dioxide, and dust on Mars. The search for water is important for understanding the climate of Mars, both now and in the past. Finding easily-accessible sources of water is a requirement for the future human exploration of Mars.
Deep Space 2: Mars Microprobes
The Deep Space 2 Microprobes were a technology demonstrator mission which would also have returned science about Mars. As the Polar Lander separated from its cruise stage in preparation of entering the Martian atmosphere and landing, the two probes presumably detached and impacted the ground. Unfortuantely they did not succeed in landing safely and sending back signals to the Mars Global Surveyor orbiting overhead. If they had been successful, the forebody of the probes would have extended 1 – 2 meters into the ground, and they would have drilled deeper into the ground to search for water.