Friday, August 9, 2013

Space Junk 2: Surface Litter


Continuing on from yesterday's essay about the floating trash heaps we clever little monkeys keep unleashing into space, I though it was also worth mentioning the things we have sent to the orbit or surface of other celestial bodies.

Click for list of objects on Mars

Did you know the United States sent five probes to planet Venus in 1978? Then an orbiter in 1989. The Soviet Union sent 16 crafts to Venus between 1966 and 1985, including capsules, landers and even "balloon gondolas". You read that right. Balloon gondolas. No space-faring nation has sent anything since around the time the movie "Back To The Future" came out.

Still, even bringing up the rear of mysteries we have explored in our inner solar system, the scattering of major hardware on Venus amounts to 50,000 pounds or 25 tons. That's an awful lot of metal, slowly melting on the hot Venusian crust!

Surveyor 3 on the Moon
Click for a graphic of large objects mapped on the Moon

We hear far more about Mars in the news and popular culture, but only a fraction of similar metal exists on the red planet. And here, of course, some are still operational and moving about!

As of last summer, when the Curiosity MSL Rover landed successfully,  all the artificial objects on Mars, compliments of NASA, RFSA, and the ESA, come to 20,000 pounds or 10 tons.

It may sound like a substantial heap of hardware, but it's a relatively meager showing, considering that's only 13 crafts total out of 42 attempts! It's also a mere 5% of what we have landed or smashed into the moon.

It is not as easy to reach Mars and land as we might think. The majority of crafts sent up have either failed somewhere along the way, or suffered communication malfunctions, leaving their fate a mystery.

Space crafts on Venus, Moon and Mars
However, the list of lunar junk truly sets the record for off-world trash heaps. Our moon holds a whopping 393,000 pounds of space crafts, or just under 200 tons of human-made objects.

The USA, USSR, Japan, the European Union, India, and China now have 73 probes, [intentionally] crashed orbiters, landers and rovers on the lunar surface.

Wonder which of these will be heritage sites, national parks or Earth Monuments when we are finally a space-faring species? Or will we just send a clean-up crew? Either way, each of the lists linked above have convenient coordinates listed, so it's fun to go to Google Moon or Google Mars and map the human hardware!