How Much Space Debris Have Humans Already Left On Mars?

How Much Space Debris Have Humans Already Left On Mars?

Rovers on Mars frequently encounter debris, like this heat shield. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Almost every week we have news that surprises us on our neighboring planet Mars. The large number of robotic missions sent has the good side of continuing to investigate possible past lives on the Red Planet and learn more about possible human habitation in the future. But it also has its bad side: the waste we leave there, without stepping on it yet.

It’s that for more than 50 years, humans have sent 18 objects to Mars in 14 space missionsaccording to information from United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. Some of these missions are still operational, but many are no longer, lying on the Red Planet’s surface as obsolete trash.. Even current missions have left debris on Mars, products of the detachment of different materials during landing, such as protective shields, parachutes and retrorockets.

The wheels of the Curiosity rover have been damaged over the years, leaving behind small pieces of aluminum.  NASA/JPL-Caltech
The wheels of the Curiosity rover have been damaged over the years, leaving behind small pieces of aluminum. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The doctor Cagri Kilic, a postdoctoral researcher in robotics, from the University of West Virginia, in the United States, is a specialist in space issues and has studied the various human debris on Mars. The expert spoke with Infobae and clarified that this space debris comes from three main sources: scrapped hardware, inactive spaceships and crashed spaceships.

Concerning the scrapped material, Kilic specifies that each mission to the Martian surface requires a module that protects the spacecraft, including a heat shield as the spacecraft passes through the planet’s atmosphere and a parachute and landing gear so that it can reach the surface. In its descent, the ship or robot throws pieces of the module as it descends, and these pieces can land in different places on the surface of the planet and be hundreds of kilometers from where the robot finally lands.

All spacecraft that land on Mars expel equipment, such as this protective coating, on their way to the Martian surface.  NASA/JPL-Caltech
All spacecraft that land on Mars expel equipment, such as this protective coating, on their way to the Martian surface. NASA/JPL-Caltech

When this debris falls to the ground, it can break into smaller pieces, as happened during the landing of the the Curiosity rovers, in 2012, and Perseverance, in 2021, that in addition to their heat shields and parachutes, the two robots dropped a structure called Skycrane which contained retro-rockets. These small pieces can be carried away by the Martian winds.

“All space agencies are doing what they can to reduce the risk of space contamination. On Mars, although there is no immediate concern, Perseverance sampling teams document the debris and verify if it may represent a potential problem or source of contamination for the sample tubes he collects for a future mission to bring back to Earth. The rover carries a set of central tubes filled with material from the surface. In its drilling work, the robot also left behind material, which is systematically exposed to the Martian environment. This debris could be a source of entanglement hazard for the rover, according to scientists. However, they concluded that such a risk is low,” Kilic told Infobae.

The Perseverance rover encountered this piece of canvas on July 12, 2022, more than a year after landing on Mars.  NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Perseverance rover encountered this piece of canvas on July 12, 2022, more than a year after landing on Mars. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Kilic, robotics researcher, postdoctoral fellow specializing in inertial localization of planetary vehicles and co-operative location for multiple robot systems at West Virginia University’s Navigation Laboratory, said scientists’ primary concern about debris on Mars is the risk it poses to current and future missions. The expert said that currently NASA’s Perseverance rover is documenting all the debris it finds in its path as it scales Jezero Crater.

In addition to the wreckage left by their landings, Kilic eased the other trash that can be found on Mars, although he clarified that many of them are not literally trash, but many of them are historical relics from space. This is about 9 inactive spacecraft on the surface of Mars. These ships are the Russian Mars 3 and Mars 6 landers, the American Viking 1 and Viking 2, the Sojourner rover, the previously lost British Beagle 2 lander, the Phoenix spacecraft and the successful twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity. “Another major source of waste is crashed spacecraft and their parts. At least two spacecraft crashed and four others lost contact before or shortly after landing, making the safe descent to the planet’s surface the most difficult part of any mission to Mars.

The European Space Agency's Schiaparelli lander crashed on the surface of Mars in 2016, as seen in these photos of the crash site captured by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ.  from arizona
The European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander crashed on the surface of Mars in 2016, as seen in these photos of the crash site captured by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. from arizona

When you add up the mass of all spacecraft that have ever been sent to Mars, you get about 9,979 kilograms, or almost 10 tons. If you subtract the weight of ships currently operating on the surface (2,860 kg), you get 7,119 kg of human waste on MarsKilic said. “The actual debris was actually from the entry-descent-landing system called the EDL. Some of the debris may be reused later when the technology becomes available on Mars, however, the tiny scattered debris particles may be difficult to find. and use later.”

Space debris is quite common for planetary missions and the amount will increase in the coming years. We’ve only had 50 years of exploration on Mars, and the total mass of space junk is quite small. However, small pieces of debris can travel tens of kilometers on Martian winds. These small pieces of debris strewn across the surface of Mars can be hard to find. But I believe with all my heart that we can reuse most of this waste on Mars and then humanity won’t make the same mistake we made with our home planet, Earth,” Kilic said.

Parachutes and a protective shell of the Perseverance rover are seen on the surface of Mars (NASA)
Parachutes and a protective shell of the Perseverance rover are seen on the surface of Mars (NASA)

To conclude, the specialist left a reflection to Infobae on ships that are on Mars and that no longer work. “Most of them are intact, that’s why they are better considered historical relics than space junk. Perhaps one day humanity will be able to visit their location and see the pioneering efforts of planetary exploration.

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