Photos captured from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter may provide new clues about a Soviet spacecraft that mysteriously vanished 40 years ago. In a press release published Thursday, NASA credited a group of amateur Russian space enthusiasts with discovering what could be remnants of the Mars 3 — a Soviet craft that successfully landed on Mars in 1971, before suddenly losing contact with the USSR seconds afterward.

The discovery was made by a Russian online community dedicated to the Mars Rover Curiosity. Community leader Vitali Egorov led an effort to discover the Mars 3 using the imagery gathered by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and a model of what the Mars 3's hardware might look like under the orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera. A match was ultimately found in a five-year-old image that may contain evidence of the Mars 3's parachute, heat shield, terminal retrorocket and lander.

Experts say the items in the images bear remarkable similarities with the Mars 3's hardware, though further tests are needed.

"I wanted to attract people's attention to the fact that Mars exploration today is available to practically anyone."

"Together, this set of features and their layout on the ground provide a remarkable match to what is expected from the Mars 3 landing, but alternative explanations for the features cannot be ruled out," HiRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona, Tucson, said in a statement. "Further analysis of the data and future images to better understand the three-dimensional shapes may help to confirm this interpretation."

For Egorov, the finding is a testament to the power of crowdsourced space exploration.

"I wanted to attract people's attention to the fact that Mars exploration today is available to practically anyone," Egorov said. "At the same time we were able to connect with the history of our country, which we were reminded of after many years through the images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter."