The Strange Case of Mars Polar Lander

In a surprising development, a recent Space.com story has revealed that a highly secretive arm of the US intelligence community may have found the long lost Mars Polar Lander intact on the Martian surface. This curious development -- coming some 14 months after NASA had officially stopped looking for the lander and almost a year since it released its report on the loss -- is ripe with political implications and raises renewed questions about whether a signal once thought to be from the lander might have been the real thing after all.

The news comes in the form of a "leak" -- apparently from a source inside the super secret spy agency that found the lander. The agency, NIMA (National Imagery and Mapping Agency) was founded in October 1996 with the merger of the old Defense Mapping Agency, the Central Imagery Office, the Defense Dissemination Program Office and the CIA's National Photographic Interpretation Center. Also included in NIMA are parts of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the Defense Airborne Reconnaissance Office.

According to the story by Space.com writer Leonard David, NIMA contacted NASA within weeks of the spacecraft's disappearance as it descended to a soft landing near the planet's south polar region. In NASA's report on the apparent mishap, the Polar Lander failed as it descended to its scheduled soft landing at 76S, 195W (yes, we noticed the "decimal harmonic" of 19.5) when the onboard computer mistook the extension of the landing legs for ground contact and shut down the landers engine prematurely. The early shutdown would have sent the MPL tumbling in free fall from hundreds of feet above the ground and splattered it on the rocky Martian surface below.

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Lockheed Martin, the builder of the lander, has always objected to these conclusions in NASA's report and this new finding only fuels the conviction that there was nothing wrong with the design of their spacecraft. This is supported by the reportedly "euphoric" NIMA team's claim that not only have they spotted the spacecraft, but it "appears intact on the surface, sitting atop its trio of landing legs." The problem with that scenario is that it raises a whole host of questions which make this story fall decidedly into political -- rather than engineering or scientific -- realms.

For starters, it's not exactly clear just when NIMA found the lander. What is clear is that NIMA's "help" was unsolicited. A CNN story says only that NIMA contacted NASA with their findings in the last month. There is no indication as to exactly when the determination was made within NIMA that they had found the spacecraft. Did they find it in Mars Global Surveyor images of the landing site back in January, 2000 when they first contacted NASA? If so, why would NIMA sit on this news for 14 months? Or is this identification of the lander a more recent event? If it is, why did it take almost 14 months to find it? 

And -- most crucially -- if it did land safe and sound on its little legs, why didn't it phone home when it was supposed to?

Frankly, we're not sure which scenario is more chilling; that a super secretive spook agency would spend its valuable taxpayer resources on what is essentially a lark -- finding a little lost space probe on Mars -- or that it took nearly 14 months to do so. 

Despite efforts to overstate the problem (MSSS compared it to "trying to find a specific needle in...a haystack-sized pile of needles"), it's not like you have a couple of  NIMA analysts pouring over dozens of images with magnifying glasses and loupes. All they would have had to do is to plug the Malin data into the NIMA super computer and run a series of algorithms designed to distinguish artificial objects from natural ones. (And frankly, if NIMA is anxious to give away time on it's super computers, we've got one or two interesting pieces of Martian real estate we'd like to run through their system ...). With the state of the art of today's computing technology, it is highly doubtful that it really took 14 months to complete such a search. Indeed, it's hard to imagine it taking 14 hours

The problem comes in when you consider the resolution of the MGS camera. The maximum resolution is supposedly 1.5 meters per pixel -- and that is under ideal lighting and weather conditions. The USGS image above was taken from a surveillance aircraft. The resolution is 1 meter per pixel -- 50% better than what MGS can attain. Even at that resolution, automobiles and large trucks are tiny specks with no real definition. The MPL itself would be less than half the size of the car in this picture, making it virtually invisible to the MGS camera. So how exactly did NIMA determine that it was upright and intact on it legs on the Martian surface?

We can only assume that NIMA has access to a variant of the so-called "super resolution surface modeling" process. This and other similar techniques require more than one image in order to be effective, but it is not at all clear that this is the case with the NIMA data. Yet, even though they are looking for one or two specific pixels from a pool of nearly 150 million, this is exactly what the intelligence agency's equipment is designed to do. 

Even so, it seems that -- given the current information -- it's extremely unlikely that the status of MPL could be determined solely from the MGS images themselves ...

So ... what's really going on?

One possibility is that NIMA did find the MPL quite a while back, but has simply been following NASA's lead in not really discussing it. NASA has hardly been very enthusiastic about finding the lander almost from the moment it disappeared. Way back at the beginning, shortly after the probe went missing on December 3rd, 1999,  JPL curiously sent most of its workers home rather than have them continue round the clock efforts to communicate with the lost probe. The fallacy of this lax approach to finding the spacecraft was demonstrated a few weeks later when a signal was detected, possibly from the landers backup UHF transmitter. NASA was very quick -- too quick -- to dismiss the signal as local interference. 

The signal itself was found inside a broader based transmission received at the 150 ft dish at Stanford's Space, Telecommunications and Radioscience laboratory in California. During their attempts to contact the lost probe, JPL technicians had sent instructions to the lander to try and signal the Stanford dish at prescribed times on December 18th, 1999, and January 4th, 2000. After initially reporting that nothing had been heard, Stanford technicians refused to give up on the little lost probe and continued to process and analyze the data received from the dish on those two occasions. On January 24th, 2000, they announced that they had indeed received a signal -- though it took them weeks to find it -- in a very faint UHF band but coming from the direction of Mars. Further attempts to contact the probe resulted in silence and NASA declared the signals local interference and considered the probe lost. 

So it may be that NIMA has had this data in front of NASA for some time -- despite what the CNN story says -- and simply got tired of waiting for the space agency to say something. Certainly NASA's behavior does not indicate any real enthusiasm for finding the MPL. But there is another, admittedly more nefarious possibility behind all this. 

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Phone Home?

What if the hierarchy at NASA/JPL had known all along that MPL was operating on the Martian surface, and simply wished to keep the data to themselves? 

This would not really be all that difficult to do. Let's float a trial balloon scenario here. 

It would have been very little challenge to reprogram the MPL's onboard computer before launch, or even after. A few commands transmitted by a few loyal project scientists could have simply changed the spacecraft's communications protocols so that it stayed silent during the time that JPL was quite publicly trying to find it. Of course, it would be impossible to keep this from the honest scientists and technicians working elbow to elbow with the loyalists. That problem could be solved by simply sending those not in the "need to know" home for the weekend -- as JPL actually did. You would then need to set it up so that any new data transmissions requested through the "public channel" would be heard faintly, if at all, so as to create the impression that the probe was all but lost.

Then the issue comes down to getting the data from the lander without anyone knowing you've done so. To do this, you'd need a backup transmitter and a means of getting the signal to the right people without anyone else detecting it. A secured, exclusive pipeline that could not be tapped into or eavesdropped on by those pesky honest scientists seeking to find the taxpayer's spacecraft. And you'd need somebody at the other end whose loyalty and commitment to the cause was absolutely unwavering, who you could be certain would keep the lid on what had been done.

Somebody like Michael Malin.

It just so happens that MPL did indeed have a backup transmitter, the small, weak UHF transmitter. It was by no means supposed to be powerful enough to be heard from Earth, but signals could have been easily detected in the local Martian vicinity. It also turns out that the only person who was in a position say whether anything had been picked up from this transmitter was Malin. Mars Global Surveyor, a spacecraft operated by Malin and JPL, could have picked up the signals using MGS's Mars Relay system. This private pipeline would then transmit the data collected from the MPL back to Earth as part of the normal MGS transmissions -- transmissions which are encoded and then decoded only when they get to Dr. Malin's desk. 

Ok, so there is no question that NASA/Malin/JPL had means and opportunity, but what about motive? What could be so interesting about the South Polar regions that the NASA priesthood would go to these kinds of lengths keep the information to themselves? Well, how about "Arthur's bushes?"

This image, first pointed out by the now ubiquitous Sir Arthur C. Clarke, seems to be some sort of brush or plant life growing on the surface of Mars! Now, while we do not necessarily subscribe to that interpretation other than to admit that is undeniably what it looks like, we have to say that if nothing else, the contents of this image are something extraordinary. Whatever this is, it resides in the South Polar regions just a hop, skip, and a jump from the designated MPL landing site. And certainly, if this is at all indicative of what's to be found below the receding ice of the south Polar caps, then it is easy to see why somebody at NASA/JPL/Malin would decide that it was a little too soon for the public to get a first hand look at it --

-- and pulled the plug!


MPL Landing site (Red) and "Arthur's Bushes" (Yellow)

Now, before you toss all this aside as conspiratorial speculation, let's go back to one of our earlier points. If the resolution of the Malin camera is insufficient to even find the MPL, much less determine that it "appears intact on the surface, sitting atop its trio of landing legs," how exactly did NIMA make this determination? According to someone inside NIMA who reported to an Enterprise Mission source, it was "more than just the pictures" that led NIMA to conclude that MPL was indeed intact on the Martian surface. This tidbit of information implies that NIMA has been listening into or intercepting signals from MPL for at least some period of time. This is after all the kind of thing that intelligence agencies do as matter of course. 

If that is the case, and our "clandestine mode" model of JPL's behavior is indeed what the NIMA source is referring to, then that could mean that someone inside of NIMA got tired of waiting for NASA to come clean. And, it brings a whole potential new light on those "technical issues" now being discussed in private by NIMA and NASA representatives. 

Oh, to be the proverbial "fly on the wall" at those meetings!

-- Stay Tuned! --