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A Concise History of Martian Exploration

Since the beginning of space exploration, 33 missions have been sent to explore Mars, but only 10 have been successes. Here is a brief overview on each mission and what was accomplished (or what went wrong).

Marsnik 1
Launched: October 10, 1960
Marsnik 2
Launched: October 14, 1960
Country: Soviet Union
What Happened: After launching Sputnik in 1957, the Soviet Union planned 2 missions to explore the space between the Earth and Mars and send back pictures of the surface of Mars. After launch, Marsnik 1 did not have enough momentum to escape the Earth’s gravitational pull and fell back to the planet. Marsnik 2 didn’t make it into space after the third stage of the rocket failed.

Sputnik 29
Launched: October 24, 1962
Country: Soviet Union
What Happened: Sputnik 29 was also known as Korabl 11, as well as others because the Soviet Union did not acknowledge the development of this mission. The plan was to send the craft to photograph Mars as well as analyze radiation and magnetic fields. It fell apart in space after the fourth stage of the rocket failed. As it fell back to Earth, US radar systems detected the failed spacecraft and thought it was an attack on the US. Luckily, retaliation was not taken.

Mars 1
Launched: November 2, 1962
Country: Soviet Union
What Happened: This mission was almost exactly the same as Sputnik 29 except for the fact that it actually got into space. The craft was on its way to Mars, however the Russians lost contact on March 21, 1963

Sputnik 31
Launched: November 4, 1962
Country: Soviet Union
What Happened: This time, the Russians tried to get a lander on the surface of Mars. The craft got into orbit around the Earth, but a rocket failed and it broke up and fell back to Earth. Again, the Russians did not acknowledge this mission.

Mariner 3
Launched: November 5, 1964
Country: United States
What Happened: This mission was a fly-by designed to photograph the surface of Mars as well as analyze cosmic dust, solar plasma, radiation, and magnetic fields. After launch, the fairing, an aerodynamic shield protecting the craft, was damaged and the craft was ruined as it traveled through the atmosphere.

Mariner 4
Launched: November 28, 1964
Country: United States
What Happened: Completely identical to Mariner 3, this craft was redesigned to prevent the damage that occurred to Mariner 3. After a successful launch, the craft was sent off to Mars. On July 14, 1965, Mariner 4 reached Mars and sent back a total of 21 pictures of the Martian surface. Hoping to find canals and vegetation, scientists were shocked to see the bare surface. Atmospheric analysis revealed a very thin atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide. After leaving Mars, the craft sent back data until October when contact was lost. In late 1967, contact was reestablished as it passed close to Earth again, but then the signal became too weak and contact was permanently lost on December 21.

(Note: Mariner 1 and Mariner 2 were sent to explore Venus, however only Mariner 2 was a success)

Zond 2
Launched: November 30, 1964
Country: Soviet Union
What Happened: This mission was similar to the Mariner missions. It also contained instruments to detect ozone and micrometeorites. After a successful launch, one of the craft’s solar panels didn’t open. Contact was maintained until May, 1965.

Zond 3
Launched: July 18, 1965
Country: Soviet Union
What Happened: Due to the lack of success of the Russian missions, this mission was a test to prove that they could get it to work. This craft was designed to take pictures as well as study solar wind, radio signals, magnetic fields and cosmic rays. It also was sent around the moon and took 25 images of the dark side of the moon. As the same side of the moon always faces our planet, these were the first images of the opposite side of the moon. The craft successfully reached the orbit of Mars, but Mars was nowhere near by. The Russians were aware this would happen, but they wanted to prove that they could get a craft there. Contact was lost in March, 1966.

Mariner 8
Launched: May 8 1971
Country: United States
What Happened: Mariner 8 was the first craft launched with the goal of establishing an orbit around Mars. Once there, it was to establish a polar orbit and map the entire surface of Mars. Unfortunately, during launch, a the rocket malfunctioned and the craft was destroyed before it ever left our atmosphere.

Kosmos 419
Launched: May 10, 1971
Country: Soviet Union
What Happened: Kosmos is the name reserved for missions that are Earth orbiters, which hints at the success of this mission. Launch was a success, but the booster needed to send the craft to Mars failed to fire. Two days later, the craft reentered the atmosphere and burned up.

Mars 2
Launched: May 19, 1971
Mars 3
Launched: May 28, 1971
Country: Soviet Union
What Happened: These identical craft contained both an orbiting satellite and a lander. The orbiters were designed to study the planet’s composition, topography, magnetic field, temperature and atmosphere. The landers were designed to perform similar tasks, but they were going to get a more thorough evaluation of the Martian surface and soil composition. Upon arrival to Mars, the craft successfully entered orbit and launched the landers towards the planet. Unfortunately, Mars was in the midst of a giant dust storm that covered the whole planet. The craft could not be reprogrammed to wait for the storm to pass. The Mars 2 lander was launched on November 27, 1971 and was lost on its decent. Mars 3 was launched on December 2, 1971 and successfully landed on the surface, but contact was lost after only two minutes. The two orbiters sent back a great deal of data on Mars and combined for 60 images of the planets surface.

Mariner 9
Launched: May 30, 1971
Country: United States
What Happened: The problem experienced by Mariner 8 was corrected and Mariner 9 successfully made it into space. Six months after launch, only days away from Mars contact was lost with the spacecraft. Luckily, by using a different antenna, NASA scientist were able to reacquire the signal from Mariner 9. The craft successfully entered orbit, but encountered the same dust storm as the two Russian craft. One month later, the dust finally cleared and Mariner 9 began its mission. It was only supposed to last 90 days, but Mariner sent back data from January until October 27, 1972 and took over 7000 images of the entire Martian surface, as well as Mars’ moons, Phobos and Deimos.

Mars 4
Launched: July 21, 1973
Country: Soviet Union
What Happened: In 1973, the Soviet Union launched 4 missions to Mars. To save resources, Soviet scientists decided to use aluminum, rather than gold, in many of the spacecraft’s transistors. This turned out to be a big mistake as aluminum less strong than gold, and could easily corrode. This problem was discovered but there was not enough time to replace the components. The missions continued as plans with fingers crossed. The first mission, Mars 4, had a successful launch and reached Mars, but there was a malfunction with the rockets and the craft flew by the planet.

Mars 5
Launched: July 25, 1973
Country: Soviet Union
What Happened: Mars 5 successfully established an orbit around Mars and began transmitting data on Mars’ atmosphere. It also returned 60 images before contact was lost two weeks after it had arrived.

Mars 6
Launched: August 5, 1973
Country: Soviet Union
What Happened: Two months after launch, the craft stopped transmitting data with Earth, however the craft successfully reached Mars and released a lander. Data was received during the craft’s decent, but it stopped sending data right before reaching the surface. The data sent back did, however, provide some information on the Martian atmosphere. The mission failed, but it was not a total failure.

Mars 7
Launched: August 9, 1973
Country: Soviet Union
What Happened: After reaching Mars, the lander was released, however it was not released towards Mars. It was launched out into space.

Viking 1
Launched: August 30, 1975
Viking 2
Launched: September 9, 1975
Country: United States
What Happened: The goal of these two missions was to find signs of life. Two identical craft were sent with an orbiter and a lander. The orbiter would photograph the surface to find a safe landing site and would serve as the communication relay for the landers. After launching the lander, the satellites performed many test on the atmosphere. Approximately a month after arriving at Mars, both landers successfully landed on the surface on July 20 and September 3, 1976, respectively.
There were several biological experiments, which were designed to find proof of life. The first experiment involved adding a nutrient solution and water vapor to a sample of Martian soil. A release of gases would indicate that organisms were alive and digesting the food. Two other experiments were performed with radioactive carbon. The belief was that if carbon-eating organisms were to digest the radioactive carbon, we would be able to see a change. All of the tests gave results that appeared to indicate there was life on Mars, however, upon further study, they were able to find that the results were caused by chemical reactions in the soil and not by living organisms.
Like Mariner 9, these missions were designed to last for 90 days, but ended up lasting years. The Viking 1 lander actually sent back data until November 11, 1982. These two missions combined for over 56,000 images from the landers and the orbiters.

Phobos 1
Launched: July 7, 1988
Country: Soviet Union
What Happened: Fifteen years since the last Soviet missions to Mars, a very elaborate plan was made to send rovers to Mars, which would allow for a sample return mission, and study Phobos, the largest of Mars’ moons. Due to many political and economic problems, the mission was simplified to just study Phobos. The mission had a lander that would study the composition of the moon, take pictures, and attempt to discover any seismic activity. Unfortunately, a simple programming error prevented the crafts solar cells towards the sun and it lost power before reaching Mars.

Phobos 2
Launched: July 12,1988
Country: Soviet Union
What Happened: This mission was almost identical to Phobos 1, except it had two landers for the Martain moon. The second lander was able to hop around the surface and would be able to take samples of several different locations on the moon. Phobos 2 made it to Mars without problem and began studying the planet and the moon. Before the landers were launched, the satellite had to turn to take pictures of the moon. It never turned back around and contact was lost after only 2 months of research.

Mars Observer
Launched: September 25, 1992
Country: United States
What Happened: This was a huge project. The satellite contained computers, radios, tape recorders, cameras, a laser altimeter, infrared radiometer, a thermal emission spectrometer, magnetometer, and a gamma-ray spectrometer. This satellite was designed to give us a whole lot of information on Mars. The craft was supposed to reach Mars on August 24, 1993, but three days before arrival, the spacecraft was lost. While the real reason for losing the satellite is unknown, it is believed that the fuel used to slow down and steer the orbiter ignited outside of the combustion chamber. This caused the craft to spin out of control.

Mars Global Surveyor (MGS)
Website: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/mgs
Launched: November 7, 1996
Country: United States
What Happened: Using several spare parts from the Mars Observer mission, NASA scientists built the MGS to carry out many of the same experiments as the previous mission. MGS would spend one Martian year (687 Earth days) studying many different aspects of Mars, including creating a detailed topographical map and Martian weather observations. MGS was also outfitted with relay systems to enable communications between landers on the planet and Earth.
After a successful launch, MGS opened its solar panels, but one was unable to lock in place due to debris. This did not pose a huge problem, but it would have an effect once it reached Mars. MGS established a very eccentric orbit and used its solar panels to slow down by passing through part of the atmosphere. Because of the unlocked solar panel, scientists were concerned whether it would be able to survive the aerobraking process. They made the process occur more gradually and MGS did not solidify its near circular orbit until a year later than originally planned. In March of 1999, MGS began mapping Mars. The mission was expected to end in January of 2001, but it still continues today and assists in the current missions.
Mars Global Surveyor has provided more information on Mars than all other missions combined. It has taken more than 100,000 pictures. It has provided us with proof that there once was a magnetic field and evidence that could point to liquid water being on the surface fairly recently.

Mars 96
Launched: November 16, 1996
Country: Russia
What Happened: This first mission to Mars after the breakup of the Soviet Union was another ambitious project. An orbiter equipped with 20 different scientific instruments also carried two landers and two surface penetrators. Both the landers and penetrators were looking to analyze the Martian soil and weather, as well as look for seismic activity. All four instruments were designed to survive for an entire Martian year, but the craft never made it away from the Earth. A malfunction sent the spacecraft crashing into the Pacific. This was the first and last mission to Mars made by Russia.

Mars Pathfinder
Launched: December 4, 1996
Country: United States
What Happened: NASA scientists not only wanted to put a lander on Mars, but they also wanted to send a rover to explore the surface. The main problem with this mission was lack of money. With the Cold War over, there was not as much of a rush to get to space. NASA had a budget only one-fifth of the Viking missions. The Pathfinder lander and the Sojourner rover were launched on a one-way course for Mars. Rather than orbiting the planet before entry, the craft was launched from Earth and would travel directly to the landing site. After launch, there was no way to change the course of the spacecraft. Luckily, no problems were encountered and the lander touched down on July 4, 1997. Everything worked perfectly. The rover took many pictures and sent back a great deal of data on the Martian soil. Pathfinder also took pictures, which provided further evidence that there once was flowing water on the surface and studied the weather of the Martian atmosphere. The entire mission lasted 83 Martian days.

Nozomi
Website: http://www.isas.ac.jp/e/enterp/missions/nozomi/index.shtml
Launched: July 4, 1998
Country: Japan
What Happened: This mission was the first mission to another planet by the Japanese, but was truly an international effort. The satellite contained a Swedish spectrometer, Canadian plasma analyzer, German dust counter, French camera, and an American spectrometer and radio equipment. The Japanese planned an elaborate mission which involved two passes near the moon for gravitational assist and then fired its thrusters as it swung around the Earth before traveling to Mars. However, the boost was not enough and the Japanese had to fire the thrusters to keep the spacecraft on path. Because of the unscheduled thruster firings, there was not enough fuel for the entire mission. A new course was plotted which required the craft to orbit the sun for four years and use two more passes around the Earth for a boost. Unfortunately, a solar flare in April 2002 damaged some of Nozomi’s equipment, but it the Japanese were able to work around the trouble. In June of 2003, Nozomi passed Earth and headed towards Mars. Prior to arrival, the damaged communications equipment proved to be too much trouble and in December of 2003, Nozomi (ironically, the Japanese word for “hope”) was abandoned.

Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO)
Launched: December 11, 1998
Country: United States
What Happened: This was one part of the Mars Surveyor ’98 mission. The MCO was a weather satellite similar to those in orbit around Earth. Its job was to observe weather patterns by taking pictures and recording temperature, water vapor and dust in the atmosphere. The MCO reached Mars and passed behind the planet as it established itself in orbit, however it never reappeared on the other side. It was discovered that an error was made in converting measurements to metric units, which caused the craft to fly too close to Mars. The orbiter flew right into the planet and burned up in the atmosphere.

Mars Polar Lander (MPL) and Deep Space 2
Launched: January 3, 1999
Country: United States
What Happened: This mission comprised the other half of the Mars Surveyor ’98 mission. The MPL was designed to land on the South Pole of Mars to study the composition of the ice and atmosphere. It also would search for water in the soil around the ice. It even carried a microphone to record the sounds of the Martian surface. Deep Space 2 was two probes on the legs of the MPL. These were to release themselves during the decent to the surface and penetrate up to two meters below the surface in an attempt to find water. Right before landing, the MPL turned it’s antenna away from the Earth, as was planned, but contact was never reestablished. It was determined that the craft thought that it was on the surface and so the retro-boosters that slowed the decent shut down. The only problem was that it wasn’t on the surface and so it crashed to the ground and was destroyed.

2001 Mars Odyssey
Website: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/odyssey
Launched: April 7, 2001
Country: United States
What Happened: 2001 was supposed to see an orbiter as well as another lander similar to the MPL, but after the several failures, the plan for a lander was scratched and the Odyssey orbiter was the only mission to be launched. Three instruments were brought to Mars on the Odyssey. The Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) analyzes the surface of Mars in visible and infrared wavelengths to study composition of the surface in an attempt to discover where there used to be liquid water. A Gamma Ray Spectrometer is used to find traces of hydrogen. It is assumed that the presence of hydrogen is indicative of water. The final instrument is the Martian Radiation Environment Experiment (MARIE). This tool is used to determine amounts of radiation that would be encountered by humans on the surface of Mars. After arriving on October 23, 2001, Mars Odyssey successfully established an orbit around Mars. So far, all three instruments are working well, despite a problem with MARIE that required it to be shut down and rebooted. The Gamma Ray Spectrometer has found a great deal of hydrogen in the South Pole and MARIE has determined that astronauts on Mars will encounter more than two times the radiation as is experienced on the International Space Station. The mission is still in progress and is expected to continue through August, but will remain in orbit and act as a communications relay satellite until October 2005.

Mars Express
Website: http://www.esa.int/export/SPECIALS/Mars_Express/index.html
Launched: June 2, 2003
Country: Europe
What Happened: Mars Express launched the lander Beagle 2 on December 19, 2003 and established an orbit around Mars on December 25. See separate page for detailed information on this mission

Mars Exploration Rovers
Webpage: http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/home/index.html
Spirit
Launched: June 10, 2003
Opportunity
Launched: July 7, 2003
Country: United States
What Happened: Spirit landed on January 3, 2004 and Opportunity is expected to land on January 24. See separate page for detailed information on this mission.

Visit http://athena.cornell.edu/mars_facts/past_missions.html for more detail and images of all the missions to Mars.

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