3 January 1999

The Mars Polar Lander is launched by NASA.

The Mars Polar Lander (MPL) was a NASA spacecraft designed to study the polar regions of Mars. It was part of the Mars Surveyor ’98 program, which included the Mars Climate Orbiter as well. The primary goal of the Mars Polar Lander was to analyze the Martian climate, atmosphere, and volatile surface materials at the planet’s south pole.

The spacecraft was launched on January 3, 1999, and it was scheduled to land near the Martian south pole on December 3, 1999. The landing site was specifically chosen for its high probability of containing water ice, which could provide valuable information about the planet’s history and potential habitability.

Unfortunately, contact with the Mars Polar Lander was lost during its descent to the Martian surface. The spacecraft was equipped with a series of sensors and instruments to study the Martian environment, including a robotic arm, a stereo camera, and a thermal and evolved gas analyzer. Due to the communication failure, scientists were unable to retrieve any data from the lander.

The failure was later attributed to issues with the spacecraft’s descent and landing system. It is believed that premature engine shutdown caused the Mars Polar Lander to enter the Martian atmosphere at a higher velocity than intended, leading to a probable crash. The specific details of the failure remain uncertain because the lander’s descent was not captured by any on-board cameras.

The loss of the Mars Polar Lander was a setback for NASA, leading to a reassessment of the Mars exploration program. Lessons learned from the failure contributed to improvements in subsequent Mars missions, such as the Phoenix Mars Lander, which successfully landed on Mars in 2008 and confirmed the presence of water ice in the Martian soil.

16 July 1999

John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, Carolyn, and her sister, Lauren Bessette, died when the Piper Saratoga PA-32R aircraft he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard.