Wondering what to do with all that free time you have? NASA scientists are hoping to enlist volunteers to comb through high-resolution images of Mars to locate whatever remains of Mars Polar Lander.
Pros: If you find it, you'll be the first to spot the craft since it likely crash-landed during the final phase of its descent on December 3, 1999. NASA, no doubt, will give you a Certificate of Appreciation, suitable for framing.
Cons:You'd be hunting through 18 enormous images that typically contain 1.6 billion pixels each. If your computer monitor has a 1,280-by-1,024 display, roughly 131,000 pixels, you'll be scanning more than 1,200 screens of bleak Martian terrain — per image.
More cons: Scientists don't exactly know what to tell you to look for. If the spacecraft landed more or less intact, it should stand out from the smooth terrain around it as a bright-and-dark smudge of pixels. Worst case, there could be a few tiny smudges here and there … or a small crater. Or you could look for the craft's outer shell and parachute.
Guy MacArthur, a member of the HiRISE team for NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, floated this needle-in-haystack idea and links to the images in a blog entry on May 9th. HiRISE, which stands for High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, can resolve objects on Mars just 1 foot across from MRO's orbital altitude of 200 miles. Among its remarkable images are views of the Opportunity rover perched on the rim of Victoria crater.
Tim Parker, a specialist in observing Martian terrain from orbit (and from Earth — he's a first-rate backyard astronomer), has plenty of advice for would-be spacecraft hunters (note: it's a 15-megabyte PDF file). Be sure to read his suggestions before making that extra pot of coffee and hunkering down for this scavenger hunt.