Garbage piles from decades of exploration could jeopardize future missions

People have been exploring the surface of Mars for more than 50 years. According to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, countries have sent 18 man-made objects to Mars on 14 separate missions. Many of these missions are still ongoing, but over the decades of Mars exploration, humanity has left behind many pieces of debris on the planet’s surface.

I am a postdoctoral research fellow who studies methods for tracking Mars and the roving Moon. In mid-August 2022, NASA confirmed that the Persevering Mars rover had spotted a discarded piece of junk during its descent, this time a tangled mess of nets. This is not the first time that scientists have found garbage on the surface of Mars. This is because there is so much out there.

Where does debris come from?

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

Every mission to the surface of Mars requires a unit that protects the spacecraft. This unit includes a heat shield when the craft passes through the planet’s atmosphere, a parachute and landing gear so it can land quietly.

The craft discards bits of the unit as it descends, and these chunks can land at various locations on the planet’s surface — there might be a low heat shield in one place and a parachute in another.

When this debris shatters on Earth, it can break up into smaller pieces, as happened during the landing of the Persevering rover in 2021. These tiny pieces can then be blown apart by Martian winds.

Lots of little windblown litter has been found over the years – like the recently found netting material.

The Perseverance rover found this piece of the grid on July 12, 2022, more than a year after it landed on Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Earlier in the year, on June 13, 2022, the Perseverance rover spotted a large, shiny thermal blanket embedded in some rocks 1.25 miles (2 km) from where the rover landed. Both Curiosity in 2012 and Opportunity in 2005 also encountered wreckage from their landing craft.

A dead and crashed spaceship

The nine inactive spacecraft on Mars make up the next type of debris. These vehicles are the Mars 3 lander, Mars 6 Lander, Viking 1 Lander, Viking 2 Lander, Sojourner Rover, previously lost Beagle 2 lander, Phoenix Lander, Spirit rover, and the most recently deceased spacecraft, Opportunity . Mostly intact, these historical monuments may be considered better than rubbish.

Wear and tear affects everything on Mars. Some parts of the Curiosity’s aluminum wheels were shattered, presumably scattered along the rover’s track.

Close-up of the damaged wheels of Curiosity's Mars rover.
Curiosity’s wheels have been damaged over the years, leaving behind small pieces of aluminum. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Some purposeful trash, as Perseverance dropped a drill bit on the surface in July 2021, allowing it Switch in a new original bit So he can continue to collect samples.

Wrecked spacecraft and their parts are another important source of waste. At least two spacecraft crashed, and four others lost contact before or just after landing. Getting down safely to the planet’s surface is the hardest part of any Mars landing mission — and it doesn’t always end well.

When you add the mass of all the spacecraft sent to Mars, you get about 22,000 pounds (9,979 kg). Subtract the weight of the rover currently operating on the surface – 6,306 lb (2,860 kg) – and you’re left with 15,694 lb (7,119 kg) of human debris on the surface of Mars.

Why trash?

Today, scientists’ primary concern about litter on Mars is the risks it poses to current and future missions.

Perseverance teams document all debris they find and examine them to see if any could contaminate the samples collected by the rover. NASA engineers also studied whether perseverance could get entangled in landing debris but concluded that the risk is low.

The real reason the debris on Mars is so important is its place in history. Spacecraft and its parts are the early stages of human planet exploration.Conversation

Kajri Kilic, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Robotics, West Virginia University

This article has been republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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