The landscape of Mars is predominantly shaped by winds these days, as its volcanoes appear dormant and the atmosphere is too thin to let water easily flow on the surface. But what sort of a risk would these winds pose to missions on the Red Planet if discarded hardware happens to be near a lander?
It's common for Mars missions — such as the 2012 Curiosity rover and the upcoming Mars 2020 rover — to have separate entry, descent, and landing (EDL) systems from the surface hardware. A rover that makes it through the atmosphere and lands safely on the surface would have no further need of a heat shield or parachute or similar items to accomplish its mission, so such features are typically ditched.
Just before the Curiosity rover landed on Mars in 2012, for example, it jettisoned its parachute and its descent stage and used a "sky crane" to lower itself to the surface. Then the connecting cord was cut and the descent stage flew far away from Curiosity. It was designed to impact at least 150 meters away, but managed to make it several times farther, a total of roughly 650 meters.
But a new paper appearing in the journal Acta Astronautica says that may not be far enough, especially for sample return missions.
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"Currently available landing systems, using heat shield and parachutes, might be problematic because jettisoned hardware from these landers normally land within a few hundred meters of the lander," said lead author Mark Paton, a planetary scientist at the Finnish Meterological Institute, in an e-mail to Seeker.
"I would imagine a sample return mission would not jettison its parachute in close vicinity of the target sample or the cached sample,” he continued. “The parachute might cover the sample, making its retrieval a problem. Landers using large parachutes or other large devices probably pose the greatest risk as these could be easily blown onto equipment on the surface, damaging or covering it."