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The History of NASA’s Mars Missions

The Red Planet was first discovered by ancient astronomers from Greek, who noticed five bright stars while observing the sky. These five stars moved differently compared to the rest and were named Planetes, which in Greek translated to ‘wonders’. In the 19th century, an Italian astronomer named Giovannie Schiaparelli, observed structures on the surfaces of Mars, becoming known for naming the Martian seas and continents. The water bodies Schiaparelli observed are amongst some of the earliest discoveries that led to the speculation of life on Mars.


The Race to Mars, The Soviets VS The USA

Dating back as early as the October of 1960, the Soviet Union was the first to enter the race to Mars. Between October 1960 and November 1962, they made their first attempt to launch five missions to Mars. These missions were titled 1M No.1, 1M No. 2, 2MV-4 No.1, Mars 1 and 2MV-3 No. 1. Each one was a failure, hindered by various dangerous technical and climatic errors.

Later, in 1964, NASA decided to launch their first mission to Mars. The mission was called Mariner-Mars and saw NASA’s deep space probe, Mariner 3, make its first venture towards the Red Planet. Mariner 3 was unfortunately terminated 8 hours into its transit to Mars, due to issues with low velocity and payload separation failures.

With a little work on their Mariner 3 model, three weeks later, NASA successfully launched the Mariner 4 as part of a Fly-By Mission. The probe was equipped with a telescope and was meant to take NASA’s first images of Mars. Mariner 4 took 7 ½ months to reach its destination and managed to take 22 detailed images of Mars’ surface, along with vital scientific data about its atmosphere and composition. The data gathered by the Mariner 4 marked NASA’s first probe into Mars and contributed to ruling out life on the planet, stating that the atmospheric differences between Earth and Mars, the lack of a magnetic field, vegetation or water and high levels of radiation made the possibility of a living ecosystem difficult to prove.

Two days after the launch of NASA’s Mariner 4, on the 30th of November, 1964, the Soviet Union marked their sixth attempt with an interplanetary station called Zond 2. The Zond 2 was equipped with systems similar to those of their prior probe, Mars 1,  but unfortunately lost communication with ground control within a month of its launch.

Then, in February and March of 1969, NASA launched their Mariner 6 and Mariner 7, both being Fly-By missions. The missions were successful, and data gathered consisted of 201 images of Mars, along with a new discovery – Mars’ atmosphere mainly consisted of Carbon Dioxide (CO2), and the surface of Mars held stark similarities to that of Earth’s Moon. Soon after, in 1971, while the Soviet Union also launched two of their own spacecrafts, named Mars 2M No. 522 and Kosmos 419, they also built their Mars 2 and Mars 3 spacecrafts. Both missions failed on landing, losing transmission, but were able to capture images of 22km high mountains and revealing surface temperatures to be −110 °C to +13 °C.

NASA’s Steps Forward

On May 9th, 1971, NASA launched the Mariner 8 as part of their Mariner Mars ‘71 project. The Mariner 8 failed, however, on May 30th, NASA launched the Mariner 9. Despite being launched no more than 11 days after the Soviet Union’s Mars 2 and Mars 3, the Mariner 9 reached the Red Planet first, becoming known as the first orbiter in human history to have orbited another planet. Mariner 9 was installed with the most sophisticated cameras of its time, and captured over 7000 pictures, spanning over 85% of Mars’ surface. The images revealed river beds, canyon systems that were 4000 kilometers long, and massive extinct volcanoes.

Following NASA’s historical success with the Mariner 9, the Soviet Union became desperate to send their probes to Mars, and in 1973, they put together four orbiters (Mars 4, Mars 5, Mars 6 and Mars 7) for another mission to Mars. All but the Mars 5 failed, capturing and transmitting 180 images before finding its way into a micrometeoroid collision course. Out of the eighteen Soviet Union missions, only two had been successful, and the Mars 5 marked their last attempt for the next 15 years.

Two years after NASA’s Mariner 9 Fly-By, they launched the Viking 1 and Viking 2, which were both successful. While both probes were equipped with an orbiter and a lander, the Viking 1 was to take global images of Mars from outside its atmosphere, and the Viking 2 was tasked with collecting as many images as possible. The Viking 1 landed safely on the surface of the planet, and the Viking 2 collected as many as 16,000 images during its 700 days in orbit. The Viking 1 was first to capture and transmit the first ever panoramic image of Mars.

Small samples of the rock and soil found on the planet’s surface were collected, largely made of iron-rich clay. Using the Labeled Release experiment, which involved mixing martian soil with drops of water containing nutrient solutions and some radioactive carbon scientists were able to rule out any signs of life on Mars.

The Soviet Union Re-Enters The Race To Mars

A couple of years went by after the Viking 1 and Viking 2’s success, and a halt on all Mars missions seemed to be in play. By 1988, the Soviet Union had launched two of their space probes, both named after Mars’ moon Phobos. Phobos 1 failed its mission with a connection loss, but Phobos 2 managed to transmit 37 images of the moon Phobos back to Earth. This would be the very last Mars mission by the Soviet Union.

NASA made its re-entry into the race once again in 1992 with the Mars Observer, but lost communication, failing its mission and ending the 5 mission long success streak NASA had underway. With years of improvement, NASA built another orbiter called Mars Global Surveyor (MGS), which would go on to make vital discoveries for 10 more years. The MGS was set on a mapping mission that revealed evidence of ancient lava flows and gullies that seemed to be the work of a flowing waterbody.

Four years after the launch of NASA’s MGS, Russian space agency ROSCOSMOS attempted to launch the Mars 96, which failed to leave the Earth’s orbit. Following this, in December of 1996, NASA launched their Pathfinder Lander and Sojourner Rover. The Pathfinder served to be another successful mission by NASA, transmitting 16,000 images and over 8 million measurements of atmospheric pressure, temperature and wind speeds on Mars. The Sojourner was the first vehicle with wheels to be used on another planet and was the foundation for future innovations. The rover gathered data from the surface terrain and transmitted over 2.3 billion bits of data – with over 17,000 surface images – giving common folk their very first opportunity to see the surface of Mars.

Between 1998 and 1999, NASA launched three rockets – Mars Climate Orbiter, Mars Polar Lander and Deep Space Probe 2 – which all failed to complete their missions. In 2001, NASA built the Mars Odyssey, which was an overwhelming success. The Mars Odyssey is still operational and continues to send information back till date, making it the longest servicing spacecraft near Mars.

Mars Odyssey was equipped with THEMIS, short for Thermal Emission Imaging System, and GRS, short for Gamma Ray Spectrometer). THEMIS was able to scan for both visible and invisible parts of the spectrum to determine the distribution of minerals on the surface of Mars while GRS aided by measuring the abundance and distribution of elements. The GRS discovered mass amounts of water frozen in ice in polar regions underneath the surface, also revealing radiation in Mars’ environment – which served as a vital piece of information for future missions.

In 2003, the European Space Agency launched their Mars Express Orbiter and their Beagle 2 Lander, as part of their first planetary mission. Both missions were initially deemed successful. The Mars Express carried a Colour Stereo Camera, an energetic neutral atoms analyzer, to study Mars’ solar winds and their effect on atmospheric erosion, and a Mineralogical Mapping Spectrometer. The orbiter recorded mineralogy maps that were used to study the history of Mars. The Beagle 2 landed on the surface of Mars, but lost connection, leading to ESA’s first failure.

The Big Opportunity

During ESA’s two first missions, NASA also launched their most successful mission to date – Spirit and Opportunity. The mission was to last for a duration of 3 months, but Spirit stayed operational for six years, while Opportunity lasted for almost 15 years, collecting over 200,000 images and discovering habitable environments on Mars – warmth, water and thicker atmosphere.

Then in 2005, NASA sent their Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which examined Mars’ polar caps. The volume of water frozen underneath the surface of Mars was about 821,000 km3. To further their research, NASA built the Phoenix Lander in 2007, with its mission being to examine underground reserves of ice, first detected by the Odyssey. Phoenix Lander’s landing on Mars’ polar region was a success, and the lander was able to discover a chemical called Perchlorate, also found on Earth, and known as a common food for some microbes.

In the year 2011, three missions took place. ROSCOSMOS’ Fobos-Grunt orbiter, China’s Yinghuo – 1 and NASA’s Curiosity rover. Two of the three missions failed, with NASA’s curiosity rover being the first rover ever to drill a rock on another planet. Curiosity detected hydrogen, oxygen, sulphur, nitrogen and carbon, Curiosity also detected radiation on the surface, similar to what astronauts face in the International Space Station (ISS).

India joined the race to Mars in 2013 with the launch of their orbiter, the Mars Orbiter Mission (Mangalyaan), which is still operational today and continues to study Mars’ atmosphere and mineralogy. NASA sent another orbiter to Mars called the Maven, its main mission being to determine how Mars’ atmosphere and water changed over time. Scientists later revealed that due to solar winds, the atmosphere was destroyed and water evaporated into space.

In 2016, the ESA and ROSCOSMOS collaborated on a mission, landing their Schiaparelli EDM Lander on Mars’ surface, and their Trace Gas Orbiter in its atmosphere. The Schiaparelli failed its mission, losing transmission whilst landing, but the Trace Gas Orbiter is still active to this date, and continues to search for Methane and other trace elements in Mars’ atmosphere – which could potentially lead to finding evidence of biological or geological activity.

Understanding The Red Planet

Scientists needed to understand how Mars formed as a planet, so came the mission Insight in 2018. Its primary mission was to detect any sign that would explain how Mars was formed and with it, its measurements, temperature and its pulse (seismology).

In 2020, three rockets took off to Mars, the first one was Emirates Mars Mission (Hope) orbiter, which is yet operational and is currently helping scientists understand why the atmosphere is decaying into space. This was the first interplanetary mission the UAE has ever done. China also has three missions, with their Tianwen – 1 Orbiter, lander and rover. The Orbiter is on its mission and has entered the Martian Orbit, the lander with the rover is yet to arrive and start their mission.

The Present And Ongoing Mission

Perseverance was the third mission that left Earth and landed on the Martian surface safely and has already sent a thread of panoramic pictures. The landing of the Perseverance rover was streamed by NASA on its Youtube channel, and was deemed a success. The Perseverance rover has many scientific instruments to examine the moon but it also carries tools that might be used for future missions. The experiment is called MOXIE (Mars oxygen in-situ resource utilization experiment) and uses the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere using solid oxide.

With Perseverance, NASA sent Ingenuity, the first flying aircraft humans have ever placed on another planet. Perseverance’s main objective is to find any signs of  life. Perseverance was able to locate what was first a river bed and now an empty crater, while on its search for life. Set up completely autonomously and needing only a few commands to function during the day, Perseverance differs from its predecessor in more ways than one – it also doesn’t use solar panels to charge itself, substituting with lithium-ion batteries.

Perseverance has only spent a week on Mars but it serves as a long-standing dream-come-true for most ‘Earthlings’. Humans have always looked to the sky in wonder and mystery, with the hope of decoding its numerous secrets. In ancient times, Greek astronomers first noticed, then took great interest in one solitary red ball in the sky, leading humanity to speculate life on Mars. NASA and other space agencies have come a long way since observing differences between planets, and are now landing probes and conducting experiments to better understand Mars and its possibilities.

Humanity has only just scratched the surface of deep space exploration, but one thing is for certain – and that is our common and unyielding question – Are we alone in the universe?

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