Inside the Collection

Missing Russian spacecraft, Mars 3 may have been found

Photograph of 1:2 scale model of the Mars 3 spacecraft
A 1:2 scale model of the Mars 3 spacecraft in the Powerhouse Museum collection. The model shows Mars 3 in its interplanetary cruise configuration with the lander tucked under the conical atmospheric entry heat shield at the top of the orbiter. Collection Powerhouse Museum

When the Powerhouse Museum opened in 1988, its Space-beyond this world exhibition included several replica Soviet spacecraft on loan from the then Soviet Academy of Sciences. Amongst this collection of reproduction spacecraft was a 1:2 scale model of the USSR’s Mars 3, the first spacecraft to make a successful touchdown on the surface of Mars.

The Soviet Union had encountered many difficulties with its early Mars program, and Mars-3 was its first major success. Even though the lander ceased to function shortly after touchdown, it transmitted the first image from the Martian surface and the orbiter returned a significant amount of data and images for almost 4 months.

Launched on 28 May, 1971, Mars 3 arrived at the Red Planet on 2 December, just five days after its sibling Mars 2 had crashed onto the Martian surface. Mars 3’s descent module separated from the orbiter and descended to the surface using parachutes and retro rockets, in a manner somewhat similar to the Curiosity rover’s landing on Mars last year. The successful landing was celebrated with philatelic collectables like the example below from the museum’s E.A. and V.I. Crome Collection

Photograph of Soviet philatelic cover
This Soviet philatelic cover, with text in both Russian and English, was produced to celebrate Mars 3’s successful landing on Mars. It depicts the lander, with its heatshield still attached, drifting towards the Martian surface on its descent parachute. E.A. and V.I. Crome Collection. Powerhouse Museum

Unfortunately for Mars 3, it landed during a raging dust storm, which may have been responsible for it ceasing to transmit after about 15 seconds, without being able to deploy the tiny 4.5kg PROP-M rover it carried. Had it been able to operate, PROP-M would have become the first Martian rover, predating NASA’s Sojourner rover by more than 25 years. Whatever the cause, the Mars 3 lander was never heard from or seen again… until now.

Last year, a Russian citizen science project found four features in a five-year-old image from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) that would seem to match the expected debris field from the Mars 3 mission: the parachute, heat shield, terminal retro rocket and lander. A follow-up image by MRO last month shows the same features, indicating that they were not transient surface features in the originally studied image.

Photograph of hardware from the Mars 3 lander
These images show what may be hardware from the Mars 3 lander, seen in a pair of images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on the MRO spacecraft. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Vitali Egorov, head of the largest Russian Internet community following the Curiosity rover, initiated the idea of searching for evidence of the Mars 3 Lander. He modelled what the Mars 3 hardware should look like in an image from the HiRISE instrument on the MRO, and encouraged his group to search the many small features in a high resolution MRO image from 2007 covering the area in Ptolemaeus crater (in Mars’ southern hemsphere) where Mars 3 was predicted to have landed. Likely candidates for the Mars 3 hardware were found on Dec. 31, 2012, with each of the candidate features having a size and shape consistent with the expected hardware, and arranged in the surface pattern expected from the entry, descent and landing sequence.

NASA’s confirmation that the same features appear in a recent MRO image came on April 12, the anniversary of the launch of the world’s first space traveller, Yuri Gagarin (in 1961), and first Space Shuttle launch in 1981: a date which is now celebrated around the world as the UN-designated International Day of Human Spaceflight. While the images certainly suggest that the remains of the Mars 3 mission have now been found, we must remember the caution of Alfred McEwan, HiRise Principal Investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson: “Together, this set of features and their layout on the ground provide a remarkable match to what is expected from the Mars 3 landing, but alternative explanations for the features cannot be ruled out. Further analysis of the data and future images to better understand the three-dimensional shapes may help to confirm this interpretation.”

Photograph of MRO image showing the candidate features believed to be Mars 3 retro rockets
Enlarged section of the MRO image showing the candidate features believed to be Mars 3 retro rockets (top) and lander (bottom). Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona. ]

Written by Space curator Kerrie Dougherty

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