ESA Science News

08 Dec 1999

Mars Express to learn lessons from Polar Lander loss

“Our hearts go out to our colleagues at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory over the probable loss of Mars Polar
Lander,” Rudi Schmidt, Mars Express project manager said today. “But risk will always be part of any space
mission. We at Mars Express will forge ahead, taking on board all the lessons that we can from the polar
lander failure.”

Mars Polar Lander was due to land near the red planet’s south pole last Friday. The spacecraft appeared to be
on target and functioning well until entry into the Martian atmosphere when radio contact was
lost, as expected, during the descent. Contact, however, was not re-established after touchdown and all
attempts to establish it since have failed. NASA will continue attempts for another two weeks, but as time
passes, the chances diminish of finding the lander and its two probes intact.

Mars Polar Lander was built in line with NASA’s “faster, cheaper, better” philosophy which aims to cut the
cost of, and increase opportunities for, space exploration. Mars Express, due for launch in June 2003, is also
being built more quickly and cheaply than any of ESA’s previous
comparable planetary missions. “If one does a mission cheap and fast then risk goes up,” says Schmidt. “But
we are taking steps to reduce it by choosing the simplest possible design, performing a lot of system level
testing, using existing designs and hardware, maintaining a conventional quality assurance programme and
reducing flexibility and services to the scientific payload.”

Mars Polar Lander, like Mars Express, is part of an international effort to explore Mars during the first
decade of next century. “Its loss may cause a dip in confidence among the many international partners involved
in exploration of the red planet. But we must learn from the recent failures and work even harder to
safeguard the future missions,” says Marcello Coradini, solar system manager at ESA and former chairman of
the International Mars Exploration Working Group.