History of solar system exploration: Mars


Because of high concentrates of iron oxide (rust), Mars appears to us as and is often called the Red Planet. Water exists in ice form on Mars and almost certainly existed in liquid water in ages passed, meaning that it is a prime target for searching for signs of life in the solar system (along with Europa and perhaps Titan). For our purposes, the exploration of Mars has been fraught with failures, resulting in only about half of missions being successful. This is often called the Mars curse, and has been particularly brutal to the Soviet Union and Russia.

Modern Exploration of Mars:

  • Mariner 4 (1964) – After a series of failures by both the Soviet Union and the United States, NASA’s Mariner 4 was the first successful Mars flyby mission. It returned the first close-up pictures of Mars.
  • Mariner 6 (1969) – NASA flyby mission that, along with its sister Mariner 7, photographed more of the Martian surface in higher detail and studied its atmosphere.
  • Mariner 7 (1969) – NASA flyby mission, virtually identical to Mariner 6 and arriving within days of its sister, such that the two are considered a dual mission.
  • Mars 2 (1971) – After a long string of failures, this orbiter/lander was the first partially successful Soviet mission to Mars (the lander component failed). The orbiter returned a high volume of data on its surface and cloud mapping mission.
  • Mars 3 (1971) – Virtually identical to Mars 2, the Mars 3 orbiter also returned a great deal of mapping data and its lander component successful made planetfall (though it stopped returning data after only 14.5 seconds, though it did return a highly garbled closeup photo of the surface).
  • Mariner 9 (1971) – NASA orbiter mission, the first human mission to orbit another planet (narrowly beating Mars 2 and 3). Mapped 100% of the Martian surface with a variety of instruments.
  • Mars 4 (1973) – Soviet orbiter mission that largely failed, essentially “downgrading” it to a flyby mission that return some results.
  • Mars 5 (1973) – Soviet orbiter that successfully entered orbit but then failed 9 days later.
  • Mars 6 (1973) – Soviet lander that returned data during the descent stage but then collided with the surface and failed. Given the string of partial successes and subsequent failure of Mars 7, the Soviet Union essentially abandoned its Mars program for over a decade.
  • Viking 1 (1975) – NASA orbiter/lander mission that was highly successful, with the orbiter mission being extended out to 5 years and the lander returning data for 6 years, including the first high-resolution photos of the surface, including the famous shot of its footpad.
  • Viking 2 (1975) – NASA orbiter/lander, essentially identical to Viking 1. Both landers did soil analysis searching for signs of life which returned some positive signs that have since been explainable by inorganic processes.
  • Phobos 2 (1989) – Soviet mission that was only partially successful, returning some images after attaining orbit before failing. Including a lander component for Mars’ moon Phobos, which failed.
  • Mars Global Surveyor (1997) – After a long pause, NASA returned to Mars with this orbiter mission, which turned out to be a resounding success, with its mission extended all the way to 2006. Returned 7.6 Tb of data during that time and was able to imagine other bodies such as Mars’ moons and other Martian orbiters. Discovered fairly conclusively the presence of water on Mars.
  • Mars Pathfinder (1997) – NASA base station lander that carried the Sojourner rover, the first successful rover to another planet and the beginning of the age of robotic exploration of planetary surfaces. The lander returned some 16,500 images and the rover returned about 500 as well as conducting 15 chemical analyses of the Martian soil.
  • 2001 Mars Odyssey (2001) – NASA orbiter mission that has some imaging instruments and serves as a communications relay for surface missions. Has the record for longest-serving orbiter about another world. Ongoing.
  • Mars Express (2003) – ESA orbiter/lander mission, though the Beagle 2 lander component failed. The orbiter however carries a series of instruments and has been performing science since 2004. Ongoing.
  • Spirit (2004) – NASA rover mission, part of the dual Mars Exploration Rover program. Its original mission was to last 92 Earth days, and it ended up serving for over 6 years before contact was lost. In its lifetime it traveled nearly 8 km, performing science all the way.
  • Opportunity (2004) – NASA rover mission, part of the dual Mars Exploration Rover program along with Spirit. Also had a ~92 Earth day original mission that has now been extended to over 8 years. As of this writing it has traveled roughly 35 km on its scientific voyage. Ongoing.
  • Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (2006) – NASA orbiter mission, the largest sent to Mars which contains a host of scientific instruments and will act as a telecommunications relay like the MGS. Will transfer more data to Earth than all previous missions combined. Ongoing.
  • Rosetta (2007) – ESA cometary exploration mission that included a Mars swing-by that returned some data.
  • Phoenix (2008) – NASA stationary lander mission, though a consortium of universities, agencies, and companies contributed. Contained a suite of instruments to conduct analyses in the Martian arctic and successfully completed its objectives before the Martian winter destroyed it.
  • Dawn (2009) – NASA mission to the asteroid belt that included a Mars swing-by component.
  • Mars Science Laboratory (2012?) – NASA lander mission containing the Curiosity rover that launched in 2011 and is en route. Curiosity will be the largest rover sent to Mars to date. Ongoing.
  • MAVEN (2014?) – NASA mission intended to conduct research on the Martian atmosphere.
  • MetNet (2014?) – Finnish mission, the beginning of a series of missions to establish a planet-wide meteorological network.
  • ExoMars (2016?) – ESA (with NASA support) mission to investigate trace gases and land a static orbiter in preparation for a rover in perhaps 2018.
  • InSight (2016?) – NASA proposed lander mission inheriting technology from Phoenix. Intended to include a seismometer.
  • Crewed mission (20??) – Often proposed, rarely funded. When will humans walk on Mars?
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