Mars is littered with 15,694 pounds of human trash from 50 years of robotic exploration

Since the 1960s, people have been looking at the surface of Mars. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs says that 14 different missions have sent 18 things made by people to Mars. Many of these missions are still going on, but over the years that people have been exploring Mars, they have left behind a lot of trash.

As a postdoctoral research fellow, I look into ways to keep track of rovers on Mars and the Moon. NASA confirmed in mid-August 2022 that the Mars rover Perseverance had seen a piece of trash that had been thrown away when it landed. This time, it was a tangled mess of netting. Scientists have found trash on Mars before, so this is not the first time it has happened. because there is a lot of stuff there. 
Most of the trash on Mars comes from three main sources: broken or discarded equipment; spacecraft that are no longer in use; and spacecraft that have crashed.

Where does the debris come from?

A module that protects the spacecraft is needed for every mission to the surface of Mars. This module has a heat shield for when the ship goes through the planet’s atmosphere. It also has a parachute and soft-landing equipment.

As the craft falls, it throws away pieces of the module. These pieces can land in different places on the surface of the planet. For example, a lower heat shield could land in one place and a parachute in another. When this debris hits the ground, it can break into smaller pieces, as happened when the Perseverance rover landed in 2021. Then, the winds on Mars can move these little pieces around. Over the years, a lot of small, wind-blown trash has been found, as the netting found recently. On June 13, 2022, about 1.25 miles (2 km) from where the Perseverance rover landed, it saw a large,

shiny thermal blanket stuck between some rocks. In 2012, Curiosity and in 2005, Opportunity, both found pieces of their landing vehicles. The nine spacecraft that aren’t working and are on the surface of Mars are the next type of trash. These are the Mars 3 lander, the Mars 6 lander, the Viking 1 lander, the Viking 2 lander, the Sojourner rover, the lost Beagle 2 lander, the Phoenix lander, the Spirit rover, and the Opportunity rover, which was the most recent spacecraft to die. Most of these are still in good shape, so they might be better off as historical relics than trash.

Dead and crashed spacecraft

Everything on the surface of Mars gets worn down over time. Some pieces of Curiosity’s aluminum wheels have broken off and are probably scattered along the rover’s track. Some of the trash is on purpose. In July 2021, Perseverance dropped a drill bit on the surface so it could switch to a new, clean bit so it could keep taking samples. 
Spacecraft that have crashed and their parts are another big sources of trash. At least two spacecraft have crashed, and four others have lost contact before or just after landing. The hardest part of any mission to land on Mars is getting down to the surface safely, and it doesn’t always go well.

When you add up the weight of all the spacecraft that have ever been sent to Mars, you get about 22,000 pounds (9979 kilograms). If you take away the weight of the craft that is currently working on the surface, which is 6,306 pounds (2,860 kilograms), there are 15,694 pounds (7,119 kilograms) of human trash on Mars.

Why does trash matter?

Why is trash important? 
Scientists’ main worry about trash on Mars right now is that it could make current and future missions more dangerous. The Perseverance teams are writing down all the trash they find and checking to see if any of it could contaminate the samples the rover is collecting. NASA engineers have also thought about the possibility that Perseverance could get caught in debris from the landing, but they think the risk is low.

The real reason why debris on Mars is important is because of its place in history. The spacecraft and their parts are the first steps that humans have taken toward exploring other planets.


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