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  • Writer's pictureSven Piper

Exploring the Red Planet

Updated: 7 days ago

Artist's impression of landing on Mars
Artist's impression of landing on Mars (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

So far, around 50 probes have set off for Mars, and only half of the missions have been successful. In this special, you can read about the greatest successes and the most tragic failures of unmanned space travel. You will also find out why the “conquerors” of Venus have not been able to successfully complete a single mission to Mars.

Currently, there are several orbiters circling Mars, and on the surface, the American rovers Curiosity and Perseverance, as well as the Chinese rover 'Zhurong' (part of the Tianwen-1 mission), are operational.

Fortunately, all these missions arrived successfully at the planet, but this was not always the case.

It is almost 60 years ago that the first probe arrived on Mars after several previous failed missions. The American probe Mariner 4 reached the Red Planet in July 1965 and sent the first images to Earth. This was an eagerly awaited event, as until then there had been few confirmed facts about Mars, surrounded by countless legends and speculations. Some of these legends involved Martians and artificial canals on Mars.

But the first images presented a different picture of the planet. They showed a surface dotted with craters, a thin atmosphere, and low air pressure. The probe also discovered that the atmosphere is mainly composed of carbon dioxide.

This success was not unique, as Mariners 6 and 7 also reached Mars in the year of the moon landing, although Mariner 7 had to contend with adverse circumstances when a battery exploded and the power supply nearly failed. Only the fortunate circumstance that Mariner 7 was equipped with a new type of programmable computer enabled it to take more than 100 pictures of the planet's southern hemisphere, thus leading to the success of the mission.

These successes put the Soviets under pressure, who had so far been more successful in other areas of space exploration. Despite several attempts, they had not yet managed to reach Mars. Worse still, most of their probes did not even leave Earth's gravitational field, as they either exploded during launch or failed when their engines ignited in Earth orbit.

It was not until 1971 that the Russian Mars 2 probe reached the planet and sent a lander to the surface. It was the first attempt to place a small probe on Mars. The probe made it through the thin Martian atmosphere and made initial contact with the ground. Although it did not provide any useful data, as the probe malfunctioned and crashed on the surface.

The identically constructed Mars 3 probe, on the other hand, landed on Mars in December 1971, but contact with the probe was lost after two minutes. Nevertheless, the orbiters of Mars 2 and 3 still managed to send over 60 images to Earth, making this mission at least a partial success.

Further attempts to place a probe on the surface of the Red Planet failed until the extremely successful Viking program of the Americans. Both probes landed on Mars and sent the first images from the planet's surface. Viking 1 was supposed to land in the Chryse Planitia region, but the destination was changed because the region was too rough. Viking 2, on the other hand, landed in the predetermined Utopia Planitia region on September 3, 1976.

The Viking landers also delivered the first soil samples from Mars, which indicated that the Martian soil was as sterile as a hospital operating table should be. No signs of microbes or traces of present or past life were found. Some scientists see this as proof that life never evolved on Mars, while others argue that the results are only applicable to the region and not to the entire planet. Future missions will show which faction is right.

In 1988, Soviet space travel had a short-lived success. The Phobos 2 probe reached the Martian moon of the same name and examined it for the possibility of using it for future manned Mars missions. After two successful months, a computer malfunction likely occurred, and the probe was lost.

It was not until 1996 that another probe reached Mars. It was the American Mars Global Surveyor probe. It is also one of the most successful missions of unmanned space travel and was only declared lost in January 2007 after a disastrous software update in November 2006 led to a malfunction and battery failure. Even though it did not look promising after the launch of the probe, as a solar sail did not deploy at first.

As the major space nation, Russia had not yet successfully completed a mission to Mars, the Mars 96 mission followed in November 1996, but this probe also failed to reach Mars. There was a misfire during the launch, and the probe crashed into the Pacific Ocean. At the same time, the USA celebrated a great success with the Mars Pathfinder mission and the Sojourner rover, inspiring many people to explore Mars.

But the Americans also had to cope with a few setbacks, with the most embarrassing error occurring during the Mars Climate Orbiter Mission, as a NASA supplier (Lockheed Martin) made mistakes when converting units (imperial instead of the metric system), and the Martian atmosphere was then not where it was supposed to be.

Another tragic setback hit the Japanese space organization JAXA (then still NASDA). During the only Japanese mission to date, an engine malfunction put the probe in orbit around the sun. Nevertheless, the engineers still had hope, as the probe was supposed to be put back on course for Mars in June 2003 with the help of some swing-by maneuvers, but during some strong solar flares in April 2002, the probe's communication and power supply system was damaged.

It is admirable that smaller spacefaring nations have achieved some successes in recent years. Both the Indian "Mangalyaan" probe and the "Hope" probe from the United Arab Emirates were successful. In contrast, both attempts by the European Space Agency ESA to land on Mars (Schiaparelli/Beagle 2) failed.

In the case of the Beagle 2 lander, braking rockets were omitted for cost reasons. In the case of Schiaparelli, contradictory data caused confusion in the vehicle's onboard computer, which led the probe to rotate strongly and its parachute to separate prematurely.

So far, only rovers have explored the surface of the Red Planet, but it may not be long before humans also land on Mars.

Remains of the European Beagle 2 lander captured by the MRO probe
Remains of the European Beagle 2 lander captured by the MRO probe

Chronological dates (launch date of the probes):

2021 - Tianwen-1 - China - Success

2020 - Perseverance Rover - USA - Success

2020 - Hope - United Arab Emirates - Success

2018 - InSight - USA - Success

2016 - ExoMars (TGO/Schiaparelli) - Europe/Russia - Partial success (Lander crashed, Orbiter succeeded)

2013 - MAVEN - USA - Success

2013 - Mangalyaan - India - Success

2011 - Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity Rover) - USA - Success

2008 - Phoenix - USA - Success

2005 - Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter - USA - Success

2003 - Mars Exploration Rover (Spirit & Opportunity) - USA - Success

2003 - Mars Express - Europe - Partial success (Lander crashed, Orbiter succeeded)

2001 - Mars Odyssey - USA - Success

1999 - Mars Polar Lander - USA - Failure

1998 - Mars Climate Orbiter - USA - Failure

1998 - Nozomi - Japan - Failure

1996 - Mars Pathfinder - USA - Success

1996 - Mars 96 - Russia - Failure

1996 - Mars Global Surveyor - USA - Success (until 2006)

1992 - Mars Observer - USA - Failure

1988 - Phobos 2 - USSR - Partial success (Mission succeeded for 2 months, then failed)

1988 - Phobos 1 - USSR - Failure

1975 - Viking 2 - USA - Success

1975 - Viking 1 - USA - Success

1973 - Mars 7 - USSR - Failure

1973 - Mars 6 - USSR - Failure

1973 - Mars 5 - USSR - Failure

1973 - Mars 4 - USSR - Failure

1971 - Mars 3 - USSR - Partial success (Lander failed, Orbiter succeeded)

1971 - Mars 2 - USSR - Partial success (Lander crashed, Orbiter succeeded)

1971 - Kosmos 419 - USSR - Failure

1971 - Mariner 9 - USA - Success

1971 - Mariner 8 - USA - Failure

1969 - Mars 1969 B - USSR - Failure

1969 - Mars 1969 A - USSR - Failure

1969 - Mariner 7 - USA - Success

1969 - Mariner 6 - USA - Success

1964 - Mariner 4 - USA - Success

1964 - Zond 2 - USSR - Failure

1964 - Mariner 3 - USA - Failure

1962 - Mars 1 - USSR - Failure

1960 - Marsnik 1 & 2 - USSR - Failure

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