The Human Footprint on Mars is Expanding…Sometimes Faster Than We’d Like

By Corey S. Powell | November 30, 2016 11:45 pm
The Schiaparelli crash site was observed on November 1 by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The long arc at the crash site might have been a hydrazine explosion. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

The Schiaparelli crash site was observed on November 1 by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The long arc might have been caused by an explosion of hydrazine propellant. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UAz)

It will be a long time until humans put boots on Mars–at least until the 2030s and possibly a lot longer, depending on what the incoming Trump administration thinks about NASA’s unfunded exploration plans. But through our robotic emissaries, we have already made quite a mark on the planet. The newest one, on October 19, was the sad and unexpected splat from the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli probe. Apparently, betrayed by an errant altitude reading from one of its instruments, the lander crashed into the surface at about 300 kilometers per hour and gouged out 2.4-meter-wide (8-foot) crater surrounded by a debris trail, probably from a fuel explosion.

This was hardly the first time that an attempted Mars touchdown ended the wrong way. Russia’s Mars 3 and Mars 6 landers made it to the surface but failed immediately (a shame, they were very cool designs). NASA’s Mars Polar Lander had a catastrophic crash that prompted an overhaul of the agency’s whole Mars program. The British Beagle 2 probe never phoned home after reaching the surface. They all still sit there on Mars, gathering dust and slowly fading away, along with a whole other set of probes that survived the journey.

Opportunity rover's tracks, seen from orbit by MRO, gradually fade as they are covered by windblown dust. The light lines are about one year's worth of travel during 2006-2007. (Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Opportunity rover’s tracks, seen from orbit by MRO, gradually fade away as they are covered by windblown dust. The light lines represent about one year’s worth of travel during 2006-2007. (Credit: NASA/JPL/UAz)

Two of those survivors, the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, are still at it, throwing down treadmarks as they roll across the rusty terrain. Opportunity is currently 13 years into its 3-month mission, a bold exception to the rule that machines usually break right after their warranties expire. The much larger and more capable Curiosity is wending its way through the rugged terrain around Mt Sharp. As it moves, it rolls out a secret message: The tread marks from Curiosity’s wheels spell out J-P-L over and over. (JPL stands for the Jet Propulsion Lab, where the rover was created. Sneaky.)

Curiosity rover's tracks on Mars spell out J-P-L in Morse code--a little prank on the part of the engineers. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Curiosity rover’s tracks on Mars spell out J-P-L in Morse code–a little prank on the part of the engineers. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

What makes all of these robotic imprints on Mars doubly impressive is that we can also see them from space. Most of the Mars landers, even the failed ones, have been imaged by Mars orbiters, most notably the eagle-eyed Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Rapid surveillance shots from MRO identified the Schiaparelli crash site and helped decode what had gone wrong. Schiaparelli itself traveled with a companion, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which arrived flawlessly and has begun returning impressive-looking first results.

Viking 1 lander scooped up Mars soil in 1976, looking for microbial life. The ambiguously negative results have fueled 40 years of controversy. (Credit: NASA/NSSDC)

Viking 1 lander scooped up Mars soil in 1976, looking for microbial life. The ambiguously negative results have fueled 40 years of controversy. (Credit: NASA/NSSDC)

Even the Schiaparelli lander was not a total loss. Data sent back on the way down will refine the design and trajectory of the ESA’s first Mars rover, set for 2020 launch. Beneath the gathering dust are other milestones in the history of Earthlings on Mars, including the spots where the two Viking landers dug into the ruddy soil in search of alien life.

Viking 1 and Viking 2 landers, which both arrived in 1976, were found from orbit by MRO. The parachutes were still visible 30 years later, suggesting those trenches are probably still visible through the dust, too. (Credit: NASA/JPL/UAz)

Viking 1 and Viking 2 landers, which both arrived in 1976, were spotted from orbit by MRO. Their landing parachutes were still visible 30 years later, suggesting that the trenches they dug are probably still visible through the dust, too. (Credit: NASA/JPL/UAz)

Someday, I expect, human explorers will visit our robots, just as the fictional Mark Watney did in the movie The Martian. In the meantime, the human footprint on Mars keeps expanding. Just sometimes, it expands a lot more quickly than we intended.

For space and astronomy news as it happens, follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell

Drill-holes on Mars will remain visible long after tread marks are gone. Curiosity carved into these rocks, revealing diverse composition on Mars. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/UA)

Drill-holes on Mars will remain visible long after tread marks are gone. The Curiosity rover carved into these rocks as it traveled, revealing diverse composition on Mars. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/UA)

Curiosity's parachute is flapping in the Martian breeze in this 2012 image series from MRO. Shortly after, Curiosity drove away from its landing site. (Credit: NASA/JPL/UAz)

Curiosity’s parachute is flapping in the Martian breeze in this 2012 image from MRO. Shortly after, Curiosity drove away from its landing site. (Credit: NASA/JPL/UAz)

MORE ABOUT: Curiosity, ESA, rover
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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Curiosity’s wheels spell out J-P-L over and over.” Somebody has a brain and the volition to use it! Discharge for cause. If you want to find the bottleneck, the first place to look is at the top of the bottle.

    • OWilson

      How many scientists does it take to get a remote controlled car to run around a desert?

      Answer: 2 to pick up a robot from M.I.T., and 20 to bring in the champagne!

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        Have an autonomously driven car deliver itself, then return with the soused engineers. This is a Howard Wolowitz kludge not Sheldon Cooper theory.

    • Rob Neff

      Say what? Discharge as in fire the employees? For what reason?

      One advantage of putting something like that in the tread is that you can see which direction the tracks lead.
      So when somebody like Mark Whatney needs to find the rover, it makes it a bit easier.

  • dannyR

    “Apparently, betrayed by an errant altitude reading from one of its instruments…”
    They’ve pinpointed the problem exactly, and it was a tiny glitch with enormous consequences:

    Stop this insane rush to Mars, Elon Musk. The 2030-ish timeline scenario should be taken seriously.

    • Bonzaipilot

      We made it to the moon and back in less than ten years. Why end the push to Mars? Mankind needs this if for nothing else than to keep us from stagnation. After Mars I hope the push to the astroid belt continues where we can mine the riches there and further our push towards the stars.
      And for the record yes I hope we expand and push to colonize the moon also. There is cheep fuel to be had and metals to be mined. It would be a lot cheaper to lift materials from the surface of the moon to orbit then it is from earth once we have established viable bases and industry there.
      Like it or not human kind will push onward to the stars if we survive long enough.

  • joseph2237

    JPL and NASA have turned Mars into a proverbial junk yard in the name of space exploration.

    • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

      $Billions for management, pennies for programming, nothing for backups. How can Management be held responsible when it never lifts the heavy end? Management makes decisions, workers make mistakes.

      • Rob Neff

        Your first sentence is very wrong, and frankly irresponsible.

  • John C

    Leaving our tags across the solar system. Mankind!

    • Maia

      A lot like the messes left behind on Everest and other great mountain peaks. We are great at messing, poor at cleaning up. Look what we’ve done here.

      • Michel Vergouwe

        However, the dead serve as markers.

        • Maia

          Huh? We need corpses to guide way? But actually my point was more to the non-fleshly “messes” left behind.

  • Tom in Tempe

    Too much negativity in the article and the comments (IMHO). At some future date these sites/objects will all be considered monuments to the ingenuity and persistence of the human condition. Just like stopping at a roadside historical marker. Wish I expected to live long enough to visit one!

    • Rob Neff

      Agreed. Pristine sites are rare on Earth, so we have been trained to appreciate the rare pristine area.

      But all of Mars (and the moon) are essentially pristine, as is the rest of the solar system, there’s no shortage of that. Our first touches are indeed historic sites, and someday they will be tourist sites, much like Plymouth Rock (or what we think is the original rock).

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Notes from the far edge of space, astronomy, and physics.

About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.

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