Despite the fact that humans have never set foot on Mars, our presence is already being felt on the Red Planet in an unexpected way – through the accumulation of space debris. A recent map has unveiled the locations of discarded components from various spacecraft that have landed on Mars over the past 53 years, turning the Martian surface into an unintentional dumping ground.
This space trash includes remnants of metal landing equipment, used parachutes, heat shields, clipped rotor blades, drill bits, and even fabric netting. Aerospace engineering professor Cagri Kilic estimates that a whopping 15,694 pounds of human-made debris now litter Mars – equivalent to the weight of a fully-grown African elephant.
Notable contributors to this cosmic landfill include Russia’s Mars 2 lander, the first man-made object to touch down on Mars in 1971, and the British Beagle 2 spacecraft, which landed in 2003 but was subsequently lost. More recently, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter, once celebrated for its historic powered flight on another planet, has joined the ranks of defunct machinery scattered across the Martian landscape.
The challenge lies in the fact that once these machines cease to function, they remain on Mars indefinitely, transforming the planet into a repository of technological relics. Dr. James Blake, a space debris researcher at the University of Warwick, emphasizes the need for future missions to Mars to prioritize sustainability, suggesting designs that avoid leaving components behind or enable a return to Earth after completing their missions.
While manned missions to Mars could potentially address the issue by cleaning up space junk, this may not happen for several decades. Dr. Blake speculates that future Martian colonies might even consider these remnants as historical artifacts, reminiscent of how archaeologists unearth relics on Earth.
Despite the environmental impact of human exploration, the discarded spacecraft on Mars stand as milestones in the history of planetary exploration. As Professor Kilic aptly states, “The spacecraft and their pieces are the early milestones for human planetary exploration,” emphasizing the importance of learning from these mistakes and developing more sustainable practices for future space endeavors.