In Mars's Robot Graveyard, the First Soviet Rover May Finally Have Been Found

It would be awesome if this turned out to be the lost lander.

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Apr 17 2013, 3:20pm
The Mars 3 lander. via Wikimedia

Mars is a bit of a robotic graveyard. Between successful missions that died naturally on the surface and failed missions that crashed, there’s a lot of debris littering the red planet. Incredibly, citizen scientists might have identified some possible debris as Soviet Russia's . 

Mars 3, which consisted of an orbiter and a lander, launched on May 28, 1971. The lander was quite novel, and carried a small “Prop-M” rover. This little box on skis, a design inspired by snowy Russian winters and a general lack of knowledge about the Martian surface, was built to scoot around the surface as far as its 15-foot-long tether would allow. In addition to the rover was a small suite of science instruments in the lander designed to measure the atmosphere and environment. There was also a TV camera; Mars 3 was going to send back the first pictures of the Martian surface. 

The launch, transit to Mars, and landing were all successful. On December 2, 1971, Mars 3 became the first spacecraft to land on the red planet. The lander opened, exposing its instruments to the environment and beaming back an image of the planet’s surface. Then, after just 14 seconds, the lander went quiet. It never came back online. It didn’t answer any calls. It was another victim of the Galactic Ghoul

The first image sent back from Mars. via

It’s been missing ever since. No one was entirely sure where Mars 3 landed, so finding it from orbit was a nearly impossible task. But some keen-eyed Russian enthusiasts might have found it. Looking through pictures taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2007, they saw four features that look a lot like the remnants of a lander: a parachute, heat shield, terminal retrorocket, and the actual lander. 

Adding credence to the possible find is that the picture is of the right area. The image Russian citizens were looking at is of a region inside Ptolemaeus crater, which is where Mars 3 was targeted to land. And even though it’s landing area was large – the technology and knowledge of Mars didn’t exist to give the mission a tiny, Curiosity-sized landing ellipse – it doesn’t make the find impossible. The image they were looking at is huge, containing about 1.8 billion pixels of data.

After the initial find, MRO took a follow-up picture of the same area on March 10, 2013 with its incredible HiRISE camera.

The possible debris field from Mars 3. via

The find still isn’t confirmed as debris from Mars 3, but it’s looking increasingly likely that the Russians have indeed found the pieces of the lost lander. It looks in the follow-up pictures that the debris corresponds to the known sizes of the lander’s descent hardware, and the arrangement of the pieces is consistent with its landing sequence. The possible parachute is particularly noticeable, an extremely bright and reflective area against the darker surface. 

Of course, there’s always the chance that some alternative explanation is the right one. NASA will need to take more pictures of the area and run further analysis of the data. Only a better understanding of the three-dimensional shapes will confirm these objects as the remnants of Mars 3.

It would be awesome if this turned out to be the lost lander. We could finally find out what happened to the first successful Mars lander and shed some light on the mystery of why it just stopped talking.  

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