Mars exploration has been going on for more than 50 years, with 14 separate missions launching 18 manmade objects to the Red Planet. Many of these missions are ongoing, collecting information as the planet travels through space. One side effect of these missions is the increasing debris left behind.
From jettisoned netting from the Perseverance landing to discarded hardware and even crashed spacecraft, space junk is accumulating on the surface of Mars. Scientists have discovered trash on Mars for quite a while, since 1971. Experts estimate that the trash on Mars may weigh a collective 16,000 pounds (or 7,000 kg) collected over the last five decades.
Where Does All the Trash on Mars Come From?
As spacecraft land on Mars, part of their landing gear often flies off as it touches down, like protective netting or even pieces from the rockets themselves. The Soviet Union's Mars Orbiter 2 crashed in 1971, but it's not the only craft that ended up landing in pieces. Idle rockets and abandoned research equipment are strewn across the surface of Mars.
The abundance of debris concerns scientists. Are humans trashing yet another planet? Worse, the scattered detritus may contaminate samples collected by later missions, specifically those that NASA's Perseverance rover is gathering. Expeditions to Mars are expensive, well into the millions. As we look for traces of life on Mars, we may only be finding traces of ourselves.
NASA's Mars Rover Expedition
The Perseverance drills into core rocks across Mars to collect samples to send back to NASA research labs, like those at the Johns Hopkins APL in Maryland. These samples were restored in sealed tubes, awaiting retrieval from future mission craft in the zone known as the Jezero Crater.
These later Martian expeditions may be compromised because of possible contamination from space trash. If scientists discover traces of carbon-based life, what proof could they have that it originated from Mars, instead of being transferred from our own spacecraft?
Much of the scraps from Martian missions were deliberate, pieces jettisoned by landing spacecraft as they attempted to negotiate the hostile and harsh Martian atmosphere. The Perseverance Rover sent back a video detailing this, nicknamed the "seven minutes of hell" touchdown. Observers noted that the landing produced an abundance of garbage.
The trash consists of three types of equipment: Crashing craft, dormant spaceships, and abandoned research equipment. Landing on the unwelcoming surface of Mars requires plenty of protection for research craft, so much of the abandoned equipment is intentional, slowing descent and protecting the delicate observation instruments inside from damage.
Many spacecraft have those barrier modules that activate as they descend through Mars' atmosphere, then a parachute and lading equipment for the descent. None of these are necessary after the landing and so are discarded.
The Impact of Martian Space Debris on Future Exploration
Contamination from space junk is a chef concern for mission planners. The ability of additional exploration craft to obtain pure, uncontaminated samples could be decreased as the number of human debris increases.
And, the excess debris may make it more difficult for craft to land safely – not every part of the surface is hospitable to landing spacecraft. Many future rovers may have their travels impeded by debris from rovers before, blocking easily navigated paths or creating barriers to exploration.
However, the presence of discarded landing gear and crashed spacecraft shouldn't jeopardize future exploration, but it will be a consideration for future mission planners.
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