Did Lander Make It To Mars?

NASA researchers are hoping the powerful camera aboard the Mars Global Surveyor will capture images showing them whether the Mars Polar Lander made it to the Red Planet.

Mission controllers will aim the camera toward the lander's intended touchdown area Thursday.

"We don't expect to see the lander itself, but there's a good chance we might be able to see the parachute if it's spread out on the surface," Richard Zurek, Mars Polar Lander project scientist, said Monday. "We will also attempt to see the shadow of the lander."

Mars Polar Lander was supposed to touch down Dec. 3 for a 90-day mission to study and analyze the planet's atmosphere and search for frozen water beneath its south pole. It has not been heard from since it started its descent after an 11-month cruise.

Last week, NASA officials announced that the Mars program will be scrutinized, including whether scientists are pushing the current state of technology too far in their quest to unravel the planet's mysteries.

An orbiter and lander scheduled for launch in 2001 may be delayed until questions about this year's lost missions are answered. The Mars Climate Orbiter was lost in September.

David Paige, a planetary scientist and principal investigator of Polar Lander's payload, said it would be a mistake to ignore science.

"Now we're left with a rather nebulous situation where the whole fate of our Mars exploration program seems about as uncertain as our Polar Lander itself," he said. "There will be many lessons learned through this entire process, and we'll hopefully get to the bottom of what went wrong."

Sighting the 65-foot-long parachute would lend credence to the possibility that the lander may have met its demise as it was rocketing slowly to the surface, perhaps toppling over a rock.

If the parachute is not found, researchers will attempt to find signs that spacecraft smashed into Mars' surface during cruise stage. That impact probably would have taken place about 18 miles away from where the parachute would have landed.

Carl Pilcher, NASA's Solar System Exploration Director, told CBS Early Show Co-Anchor Jane Clayson that despite all the support for Mars exploration from the White House and Congress, there are clearly things wrong with the program.

"I think this program needs to be fixed, not saved," Pilcher said. "We've probably gone too far in the direction of faster, cheaper, better. We have to look at whether or not we're asking people to do too much with too little."

Among the improvements to be made, Pilcher suggested more robust communications with spacecraft and better reconnaissance of landing sites.

"I think someday humans are going to be a multi-planet species," Pilcher said, "but we've got to learn how to do these things first before we're prepared to do these more ambitious things."

MARS FACTS
Size
Diameter at equator: 6,786 km (4,217 miles)
Surface Area
144 million km (56 million miles)
Average Temperature
-63 deg C (-81 deg F)
Atmosphere
Major constituents: carbon dioxide
Minor constituents: nitrogen, argon, water (vapor)
Rotation Period
Day: 24.7 hours
Year: 687 Earth days
Moons
Two: Phobos and Deimos

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