Why does the trash matter?
For more than 50 years, humans have been investigating the surface of Mars. Nations have dispatched 18 human-made items to Mars in 14 separate missions, according to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. Many of these missions are still underway, but humankind has left a large amount of trash on the planet’s surface after decades of exploration.
I am a postdoctoral researcher who investigates methods for tracking Mars and Moon rovers. NASA announced in mid-August 2022 that the Mars rover Perseverance had discovered a piece of rubbish thrown upon its landing, this time a tangled mass of nets. This isn’t the first time scientists have discovered rubbish on Mars. That’s because there’s so much there.
What is the source of the debris?
Debris on Mars is mostly caused by three sources: discarded hardware, inactive spacecraft, and crashing spacecraft.
Every voyage to the Martian surface necessitates the installation of a module that safeguards the spaceship. This module has a heat shield for when the craft passes through the planet’s atmosphere, as well as a parachute and landing hardware for a smooth landing.
As it descends, the craft discards portions of the module, which can land in various spots on the planet’s surface, such as a lower heat shield in one region and a parachute in another. When this debris hits the ground, it can shatter into smaller fragments, as happened during the landing of the Perseverance rover in 2021. These little fragments can then be swept around by Martian winds.
Over the years, a lot of little, windblown rubbish has been discovered, such as the netting material discovered recently. On June 13, 2022, the Perseverance rover discovered a huge, glittering thermal blanket jammed in some rocks 1.25 miles (2 kilometers) from where the rover landed. Debris from their landing vehicles was discovered by both Curiosity in 2012 and Opportunity in 2005.
Spacecraft that has died and crashed
The next class of debris consists of nine dormant spacecraft on Mars’ surface. These craft are the Mars 3 lander, the Mars 6 lander, the Viking 1 lander, the Viking 2 lander, the Sojourner rover, the formerly lost Beagle 2 lander, the Phoenix lander, the Spirit rover, and the Opportunity rover. Because they are mostly undamaged, these could be considered historical treasures rather than rubbish.
Everything on Mars’ surface suffers from wear and tear. Some of Curiosity’s aluminum wheels have apparently broken off and are now dispersed along the rover’s path. Some of the trash is intentional, with Perseverance dropping a drill bit onto the surface in July 2021, allowing it to change out a fresh, immaculate bit and continue gathering samples.
Another big source of rubbish is debris from crashed spacecraft. At least two spacecraft have crashed, while four others have lost contact before or shortly after landing. The most difficult element of every Mars landing mission is safely descending to the planet’s surface – and it doesn’t always go smoothly.
The total mass of all spacecraft deployed to Mars amounts to approximately 22,000 pounds (9979 kilograms). Subtract the weight of the already working surface ship, 6,306 pounds (2,860 kilograms), and you get 15,694 pounds (7,119 kilograms) of human garbage on Mars.
Why is trash important?
Today, scientists’ primary concern about trash on Mars is the threat it poses to existing and future missions. The Perseverance crews are cataloguing any debris found and determining whether any of it could contaminate the samples collected by the rover. NASA engineers have also evaluated whether Perseverance could become entangled in landing debris, but have judged that the risk is limited.
The true significance of debris on Mars stems from its historical significance. The spaceship and their components were the first steps toward human planetary exploration. The Discussion
Cagri Kilic, West Virginia University Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Robotics
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