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Missing Mars lander shows up in old pics

Amazing what a bit of image analysis can do

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An imaging scientist believes that he has found NASA's failed Mars Polar Lander after re-examining pictures of the Martian surface taken in 1999-2000.

The likely crash site was found by scientists at Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS), the company that operates the main camera on board the Mars Global Surveyor.

Michael Malin, president and chief scientist of MSSS, has published the findings in the July issue of Sky and Telescope Magazine. He says that his search was prompted by the recent use of images from the Mars Global Surveyor to locate the rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.

The NASA mission is thought to have crashed during its descent in 1999, when a software error caused the landing rockets to shut down too soon, a theory supported by this new visual evidence. The system is thought to have confused the vibration of a landing leg deploying with the impact of landing. When the lander rockets cut out, the craft would have been some 40m above the ground.

Malin says he has also located what looks like the lander's parachute in the vicinity of the possible landing site.

He writes: "It seems that the MPL investigation board may have been correct. MPL's descent proceeded more or less successfully through atmospheric entry and parachute jettison. It was only a few short moments before touchdown that disaster struck.

"The observation of a single, small dot at the centre of the disturbed location suggests that the vehicle remained more or less intact after its fall."

Malin now plans to send the Global Surveyor back tot he site to re-image it at a higher resolution. You can read more, and check out the pictures on the BBC News site, here. ®

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