On the seventh anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, the Viking 1 lander, an unmanned U.S. planetary probe, successfully lands on the surface of Mars.
Viking 1 was launched on August 20, 1975, and arrived at Mars on June 19, 1976. The first month of its orbit was devoted to imaging the surface to find appropriate landing sites. On July 20, 1976, the Viking 1 lander separated from the orbiter, touched down on the Chryse Planitia region of Mars, and sent back the first close-up photographs of the rust-colored Martian surface.
In September 1976, Viking 2—launched only three weeks after Viking 1—entered into orbit around Mars, where it assisted Viking 1 in imaging the surface and also sent down a lander. During the dual Viking missions, the two orbiters imaged the entire surface of Mars at a resolution of 150 to 300 meters, and the two landers sent back more than 1,400 images of the planet’s surface.
READ MORE: How Many Times Has the US Landed on the Moon?
This Is the First Photo Ever Taken from the Martian Surface
O n August 20, 1975, NASA’s Viking 1 Orbiter and Lander launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Eleven months and half a billion miles later the Viking 1 lander touched down on Mars and sent home the first picture ever taken on the Martian surface. It would be just one of more than 16,000 more taken of the Red Planet by the Viking project.
But why photograph the lander’s foot, when the whole Martian landscape was waiting? For science&mdashwhich is the reason NASA does almost anything at all. “We wanted to understand what the bearing strength of that surface was. We wanted to understand how the surface would respond to the footpad,” John Newcomb, a member of the Viking management team, said.
The image they got revealed a lot&mdashthe depth of the impression the foot pad made, the granularity of the soil, even some clues to its composition. “We couldn’t have asked for anything better,” said James Martin, the project’s leader, “That picture was really worth a thousand words.”
There were actually two Viking probes&mdashViking 2 launched and landed a month after its sibling. Together, the two landers and two orbiters sent the first high resolution images of Mars back to Earth (mapping 97% of the surface), revealing the structure and composition of the planet’s atmosphere and landscape, and conducting biological tests to search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. While they were only designed to work for 90 days, the spacecraft lived on for more than six years, collecting data and sending it back to us all the while.
Now, 40 years later, NASA is continuing the work begun by the Vikings in their journeys to Mars. Since the old spacecraft flew, Mars has been visited by many other spacecraft, including the Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity rovers. If we actually do manage to send humans to Mars in 2030, as NASA hopes to, a pair of old Vikings will be there waiting for them.
Viking 1 lands on Mars - HISTORY
Viking 1 - USA Mars Orbiter/Lander - 3,527 kg including fuel - (August 20, 1975 - August 7, 1980)
- Viking 1 and 2 spacecraft included orbiters (designed after the Mariner 8 and 9 orbiters) and landers. The orbiter weighed 883 kg and the lander 572 kg. Viking 1 was launched from the Kennedy Space Center, on August 20, 1975, the trip to Mars and went into orbit about the planet on June 19, 1976. The lander touched down on July 20, 1976 on the western slopes of Chryse Planitia (Golden Plains). Viking 2 was launched for Mars on November 9, 1975, and landed on September 3, 1976. Both landers had experiments to search for Martian micro-organisms. The results of these experiments are still being debated. The landers provided detailed color panoramic views of the Martian terrain. They also monitored the Martian weather. The orbiters mapped the planet's surface, acquiring over 52,000 images. The Viking project's primary mission ended on November 15, 1976, eleven days before Mars' superior conjunction (its passage behind the Sun), although the Viking spacecraft continued to operate for six years after first reaching Mars. The Viking 1 orbiter was deactivated on August 7, 1980, when it ran out of altitude-control propellant. Viking 1 lander was accidentally shut down on November 13, 1982, and communication was never regained. Its last transmission reached Earth on November 11, 1982. Controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory tried unsuccessfully for another six and one half months to regain contact with the lander, but finally closed down the overall mission on 21 May 1983.
Click here for more information on the Viking missions.
- Phobos 1 was sent to investigate the Martian moon Phobos. It was lost en route to Mars through a command error on September 2, 1988.
- Phobos 2 arrived at Mars and was inserted into orbit on January 30, 1989. The orbiter moved within 800 kilometers of Phobos and then failed. The lander never made it to Phobos.
- Communication was lost with Mars Observer on August 21, 1993, just before it was to be inserted into orbit.
- Initiated due to the loss of the Mars Observer spacecraft, the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) mission launched on November 7, 1996. MGS has been in a Martian orbit, successfully mapping the surface since March 1998. Click here to check out the MGS page at JPL.
- Mars '96 consisted of an orbiter, two landers, and two soil penetrators that were to reach the planet in September 1997. The rocket carrying Mars 96 lifted off successfully, but as it entered orbit the rocket's fourth stage ignited prematurely and sent the probe into a wild tumble. It crashed into the ocean somewhere between the Chilean coast and Easter Island. The spacecraft sank, carrying with it 270 grams of plutonium-238.
- The Mars Pathfinder delivered a stationary lander and a surface rover to the Red Planet on July 4, 1997. The six-wheel rover, named Sojourner, explored the area near the lander. The mission's primary objective was to demonstrate the feasibility of low-cost landings on the Martian surface. This was the second mission in NASA's low-cost Discovery series. After great scientific success and public interest, the mission formally ended on November 4, 1997, when NASA ended daily communications with the Pathfinder lander and Sojourner rover.
- Japan's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) launched this probe on July 4, 1998 to study the Martian environment. This would have been the first Japanese spacecraft to reach another planet. The probe was due to arrive at Mars in December of 2003. After revising the flight plan due to earlier problems with the probe, the mission was abandoned on December 9, 2003 when ISAS was unable to communicate with the probe in order to prepare it for orbital insertion.
- This orbiter was the companion spacecraft to the Mars Surveyor '98 Lander, but the mission failed. Click here to read the Mars Climate Orbiter Mishap Investigation Board's report.
- The Polar Lander was scheduled to land on Mars on December 3, 1999. Mounted on the cruise stage of the Mars Polar Lander were two Deep Space 2 impact probes, named Amundsen and Scott. The probes had a mass of 3.572 kg each. The cruise stage was to separate from the Mars Polar Lander, and subsequently the two probes were to detach from the cruise stage. The two probes planned to impact the surface 15 to 20 seconds before the Mars Polar Lander was to touch down. Ground crews were unable to contact the spacecraft, and the two probes. NASA concluded that spurious signals during the lander leg deployment caused the spacecraft to think it had landed, resulting in premature shutdown of the spacecraft's engines and destruction of the lander on impact.
- This Mars orbiter reached the planet on October 24, 2001 and served as a communications relay for future Mars missions. In 2010 Odyssey broke the record for longest-serving spacecraft at the Red Planet. It will support the 2012 landing of the Mars Science Laboratory and surface operations of that mission. Click here for more information.
- The Mars Express Orbiter and the Beagle 2 lander were launched together on June 2, 2003. The Beagle 2 was released from the Mars Express Orbiter on December 19, 2003. The Mars Express arrived successfully on December 25, 2003. The Beagle 2 was also scheduled to land on December 25, 2003 however, ground controllers have been unable to communicate with the probe. Click here for more information.
- As part of the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Mission, "Spirit", also known as MER-A, was launched on June 10, 2003 and successfully arrived on Mars on January 3, 2004. The last communication with Spirit occurred on March 22, 2010. JPL ended attempts to re-establish contact on May 25, 2011. The rover likely lost power due to excessively cold internal temperatures.
- "Opportunity", also known as MER-B, was launched on July 7, 2003 and successfully arrived on Mars on January 24, 2004. Click here for more information on the MER mission.
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter &ndash USA Mars Orbiter - 1,031 kg - (August 12, 2005)
- The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) was launched on August 12, 2005 for a seven month voyage to Mars. MRO reached Mars in March 10, 2006 and began its scientific mission in November 2006. Click here for more information.
Phoenix &ndash USA Mars Lander - 350 kg - (August 4, 2007)
- The Phoenix Mars Lander was launched on August 4, 2007 and landed on Mars on May 25, 2008. It is the first in NASA's Scout Program. Phoenix was designed to study the history of water and habitability potential in the Martian arctic&rsquos ice-rich soil. The solar-powered lander completed its three-month mission and kept working until sunlight waned two months later. The mission was officially ended in May 2010. Click here for more information from the NASA HQ site and here for more from the JPL- University of Arizona site.
Phobos-Grunt &ndash Russia Mars Lander - 730 kg/Yinghuo-1 &ndash China Mars Orbital Probe &ndash 115 kg - (November 8, 2011)
- The Phobos-Grunt spacecraft was meant to land on the Martian moon Phobos. The Russian spacecraft did not properly leave Earth&rsquos orbit to set out on its trajectory toward Mars. Yinghuo-1 was a planned Chinese Mars orbital probe launched along with Phobos-Grunt. Both craft were destroyed on re-entry from Earth orbit in January 2012.
Mars Science Laboratory &ndash USA Mars Rover &ndash 750 kg - (November 26, 2011)
- The Mars Science Laboratory was launched on November 26, 2011. With its rover named Curiosity, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission is designed to assess whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms called microbes. Curiosity landed successfully in Gale Crater at 1:31 am EDT on August 6, 2012. Click here for more information from the NASA JPL site.
Mars Orbiter Mission (Mangalyaan) &ndash India Mars Orbiter - 15 kg - (November 5, 2013)
- The Indian Mars Orbiter Mission was launched on November 5, 2013, from the Satish Dhawan Space Center. It was inserted into orbit around Mars on September 24, 2014 and completed its planned 160-day mission duration in March 2015. The spacecraft continues to operate, mapping the planet and measuring radiation.
MAVEN &ndash USA Mars Orbiter &ndash 2,550 kg - (Launch November 18, 2013)
- MAVEN (Mars Atmospheric and Volatile EvolutioN) was the second mission selected for NASA's Mars Scout program. It launched on November 18, 2013 and entered orbit around Mars on September 21, 2014. MAVEN&rsquos mission is to obtain critical measurements of the Martian atmosphere to further understanding of the dramatic climate change that has occurred over the course of its history. Click here for more information about MAVEN.
InSight &ndash USA Mars Lander - (Launch Window March 8 - March 27, 2016)
Following launch using a Titan/Centaur launch vehicle on 20 August 1975 and a 10 month cruise to Mars, the orbiter began returning global images of Mars about 5 days before orbit insertion. The Viking 1 Orbiter was inserted into Mars orbit on 19 June 1976 and trimmed to a 1513 x 33,000 km, 24.66 h site certification orbit on 21 June. Landing on Mars was planned for July 4, 1976, the United States Bicentennial, but imaging of the primary landing site showed it was too rough for a safe landing. The landing was delayed until a safer site was found. The lander separated from the orbiter on 20 July 08:51 UT and landed at 11:56:06 UT.
The orbiter exd primary mission ended at the beginning of solar conjunction on 5 November, 1976. The extended mission commenced on 14 December, 1976 after solar conjunction. Operations included close approaches to Phobos in February 1977. The Periapsis was reduced to 300 km on 11 March, 1977. Minor orbit adjustments were done occasionally over the course of the mission, primarily to change the walk rate (the rate at which the planetocentric longitude changed with each orbit, and the periapsis was raised to 357 km on 20 July, 1979.) On 7 August, 1980 Viking 1 Orbiter was running low on altitude control gas and its orbit was raised from 357 × 33943 km to 320 × 56000 km to prevent impact with Mars and possible contamination until the year 2019. Operations were terminated on August 17, 1980 after 1485 orbits.
Parana Valles drainage system in Margaritifer Sinus This image is about 250 km across.
Water poured out of the ground here and carved a channel.
Teardrop-shaped islands formed from water
Maja Valles, an outflow channel, shaped land around Dromore crater.
The lander and its aeroshell separated from the orbiter on July 20 08:51 UT. At the time of separation, the lander was orbiting at about 4 km/s. After separation rockets fired to begin lander deorbit. After a few hours at about 300 km altitude, the lander was reoriented for entry. The aeroshell with its ablatable heat shield slowed the craft as it plunged through the atmosphere. During this time, entry science experiments were performed. At 6 km altitude at about 250 m/s the 16 m diameter lander parachutes were deployed. Seven seconds later the aeroshell was jettisoned, and 8 seconds after that the three lander legs were extended. In 45 seconds the parachute had slowed the lander to 60 m/s. At 1.5 km altitude, retro-rockets were ignited and fired until landing 40 seconds later at about 2.4 m/s. The landing rockets used an 18 nozzle design to spread the hydrogen and nitrogen exhaust over a wide area. It was determined that this would limit surface heating to no more than 1 degree Celsius and that no more than 1 mm of the surface material would be stripped away.
The Viking 1 Lander touched down in western Chryse Planitia (named Gold Field) at 22.697° N latitude and 48.222° W longitude at a reference altitude of -2.69 km relative to a reference ellipsoid with an equatorial radius of 3397.2 km and a flatness of 0.0105 (22.480° N, 47.967° W planetographic) at 11:53:06 UT (16:13 local Mars time). Approximately 22 kg of propellants were left at landing.
Transmission of the first surface image began 25 seconds after landing. The seismometer failed to uncage, and a sampler arm locking pin was stuck and took 5 days to shake out. Otherwise, all experiments functioned nominally. The Viking 1 Lander was named the Thomas Mutch Memorial Station in January 1982 in honor of the leader of the Viking imaging team.
Viking 1 was the first of a pair of complex deep space probes that were designed to reach Mars and to collect evidence on the possibility on life on Mars.
Each spacecraft was composed of two primary elements, an orbiter (5,157 pounds or 2,339 kilograms) and a lander (2,156 pounds or 978 kilograms). The orbiter design heavily borrowed from the Mariner buses, while the lander looked superficially like a much larger version of the Surveyor lunar lander.
Prior to launch, the batteries of the first spacecraft were discharged, prompting NASA to replace the original first spacecraft with the second, which was launched as Viking 1.
After three course corrections (Aug. 27, 1975, June 10, 1976, and June 15, 1976), the spacecraft entered orbit around Mars June 19, 1976. Initial orbital parameters were 932 × 31,255 miles (1,500 × 50,300 kilometers). The following day, the orbiter moved into an operational orbit at 932 × 20,381 miles (1,500 × 32,800 kilometers).
The same day, when the orbiter began transmitting back photos of the primary landing site in the Chryse region, scientists discovered that the area was rougher than expected. Using the new photos, scientists targeted the lander to a different site on the western slopes of Chryse Planitia (Golden Plain).
The lander separated from the orbiter at 08:32 UT July 20, 1976, and after a complicated atmospheric entry sequence during which the probe took air samples, Viking Lander 1 set down safely at 22.483 degrees north latitude and 47.94 degrees west longitude at 11:53:06 UT July 20, 1976. It landed about 17 miles (28 kilometers) from its planned target.
Once down, the spacecraft began taking high-quality photographs (in three colors) of its surroundings. Besides high-resolution images, the lander also took a 300-degree panorama of its surroundings that showed not only parts of the spacecraft itself but also the gently rolling plains of the environs.
Instruments recorded temperatures ranging from minus 123 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 86 degrees Celsius) before dawn to minus 27 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 33 degrees Celsius) in the afternoon. The seismometer on the lander was, however, inoperable.
On July 28, 1976, the lander&rsquos robot arm scooped up the first soil samples and deposited them into a special biological laboratory that included a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer.
The cumulative data from the four samples collected could have been construed as indicating the presence of life (weak positive), but the major test for organic compounds using the gas chromatograph experiment (capable of detecting organic compounds that comprised more than 10-100 parts per billion in the soil) gave negative results.
Data showed an abundance of sulfur, certainly different from any known material found on Earth or the Moon.
While the primary mission for both Viking 1 and Viking 2 ended in November 1976, activities continued through the Extended Mission (November 1976 to May 1978) and the Continuation Mission (May 1978 to July 1979). Viking 1&rsquos orbiter then continued a Survey Mission from July 1979 to July 1980.
The lander continued to return daily (and then eventually weekly) weather reports as part of the Viking Monitor Mission. In January 1982, it was renamed the Thomas Mutch Memorial Station in honor of Thomas A. Mutch (1931-1980) the leader of the Viking imaging team who had died Oct. 6, 1980.
The lander operated until Nov. 11, 1982, when a faulty command sent from Earth resulted in an interruption of communications. Further attempts to regain contact proved to be unsuccessful.
The orbiter, after taking many more high-resolution images of the planet and its two moons, far superior than those from Mariner 9, was shut down Aug. 7, 1980, after it ran out of attitude control propellant on its 1,489th orbit around Mars.
Current projections are that the orbiter will enter the Martian atmosphere sometime in 2019 .
Viking 1 lands on Mars - HISTORY
Viking Probes From Earth Landed on Mars in 1976
Planetary exploration moved into a new era with the landing of science instrument packages on the Red Planet.
In particular, America's bicentennial attempts to land on the planet were highly successful.
Viking 1 and Viking 2 carried the American flag across millions of miles of interplanetary space to photograph Mars and its moons Phobos and Deimos, and then land on the Red Planet in 1976.
The Vikings were by far the most scientifically-profitable Martian operations until the late 1990s.
- They are able to make actual contact with the surface and the atmosphere at the surface.
- They can make first hand measurements of soil and weather.
- They can dig beneath the surface to see what's down there.
- They can send back close-up photos of the region around the lander.
- If they have mobility, landers can explore larger areas of the planet's surface.
- Over time, they can report seasonal and long-term changes in Martian surface features.
The lander parachuted to the Martian surface on July 20, 1976, where it worked for 6.5 years until Nov. 13, 1982.
It housed a weather station, seismometer and soil analyzer. The seismometer failed. The television camera showed a red rocky surface, a dusty pink sky, sand dunes and no large life forms. The soil was found to be mostly silicon and iron. Surface temperatures ranged from +20 to -120 degrees. The winds were recorded at 30 mph.
The first-ever detailed measurements of the surface and atmospheric conditions of the Red Planet began that July 20 as the Viking 1 lander touched down on a rocky Martian desert called Plains of Gold (Chryse Planitia). That unmanned landing on Mars came seven years to the day after the first Apollo manned landing on the Moon.
- 95 percent carbon dioxide, 2 to 3 percent nitrogen, 1 to 2 percent argon, and tiny traces of oxygen and water vapor.
Detailed anaylsis of the atmosphere turned up evidence that, in the past, atmospheric pressure was probably higher, supporting conclusions derived from observation of dry river channels.
- After dark the Viking 1 lander chilled to -123 deg F (187 K), but warmed during the day to -20 deg F (244 K).
- It was surrounded by a dusty, red plain littered with both dark and reddish rocks.
America's Viking 2 was launched August 20, 1975, and went into orbit around Mars on August 7, 1976. It carried two television cameras which made 26,000 photos of Mars and the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos.
NASA COLLECTION OF VIKING 1 IMAGES
The lander parachuted to the Martian surface on September 3, 1976, where it worked for 3.5 years until April 2, 1980.
It housed a weather station, seismometer and soil analyzer. The lander found wind, minor marsquakes, a red rocky surface, a dusty pink sky, sand dunes and no large life forms. The soil was mostly silicon and iron. Surface temperatures ranged from +20 to -120 degrees. The winds were recorded at 30 mph.
The lander touched down that September 3 in Utopia, a Martian region much farther north than the Plains of Gold. Viking 2 was at latitude 48 degrees north compared to the 22.5 degrees north latitude of Viking 1.
The spot where Viking 2 planted itself was more of a rock-strewn plain and less dusty than the Viking 1 site some 4,660 miles (7,500 kilometers) away.
Rocks were abundant at Utopia. Most showed the same reddish stain from iron oxide seen at the Viking 1 site.
The soil of Mars where both Vikings landed was like basaltic lava, but heavily enriched in iron and depleted in aluminum. The iron was in a highly oxidized state. Results of chemical and biological analysis on the spot suggested the presence of superoxides, peroxides, and ozonides. Those unusual compounds contribute to the color of the Martian deserts. They probably were formed by the small amount of water vapor and the ultraviolet light that reaches the surface.
At the time of landing, Viking 2 found nearly three times as much water vapor in the air over Utopia as Viking 1 had observed over the Plains of Gold.
Mars seemed less active than Earth because very little seismic noise was recorded by seismometers.
China's Space Mission
In the history of space, only NASA has successfully managed to land and run rovers on the planet in the past. Additionally, Mars 3 spacecraft of the Soviet Union landed on the planet and communicated for approximately 20 minutes in 1971 before it unexpectedly went dark.
China's mission, on the other hand, which involves three spacecraft that work together, is said to be ambitiously complex for a first-timer in a space mission. Meanwhile, Viking 1, the first United States mission in 1976, only involved a single lander deployed from its probe.
The landing of Tianwen-1 happened at Utopia Planitia, a flat swath of land on Mars, and the same site where the Viking 2 of lander of NASA touched down in 1976.
Following its touchdown, the lander will unfold a ramp and deploy the Zhurong rover of China, a six-wheeled solar-operated robot named after ancient Chinese mythology's god of fire.
The rover is carrying a suite of onboard equipment including a Mars-Rover Subsurface Exploration Radar, Mars Meteorology Monitor, Mars Magnetic Field Detector, and two cameras.
A History of Mars Exploration
Ever since humans looked up at the stars they noticed that a few of them were different from the others. They moved.
These moving points of light were planets. One of those points of light was, of course, the planet Mars.
This first observation of Mars by early humans slowly and inexorably lead to landing robots on the surface of the planet.
Learn more about our exploration of Mars on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
This episode is sponsored by CuriosityStream.
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As I mentioned in the introduction, the exploration of Mars can be considered to have begun in pre-history. As far as we know, every civilization was aware of Mars and was able to track its position in the sky. The first written mention of Mars was by the Egyptians, and even then they were aware of its retrograde motion, where sometimes the planet appeared to move backward in the sky, which is caused by the Earth passing the slower planet in its orbit.
The Sumerians, Greeks, and Romans all associated Mars with their gods of war. The ancient Chinese associated it with the element fire.
Beyond tracking the point of light in the sky, there wasn’t much more that ancient people could do.
The next big advance came with the development of telescopes.
The first person to view Mars with a telescope was Galileo in the early 17th century. His telescopes weren’t powerful enough to get a clear image of the planet, so he just wanted to know if Mars exhibited phases like Venus and the Moon did.
He didn’t see phases, but what he did discover was that Mars would grow bigger and smaller in size.
Later in the century as telescopes improved, astronomers began to report seeing dark blotches on the planet, and even light areas at its poles.
During this time, they were able to get good approximations of the length of a Martian day, and of the size of Mars relative to Earth.
As telescopes improved, our knowledge of Mars really didn’t. If anything, it might have gone backward.
The telescopes were big enough to denote patches of light and dark on the surface, but it wasn’t enough to get any real detail. In fact, the sketches and maps of the planet which were made by astronomers through the 19th century were all found to be horribly wrong..
The best example of this came from the astronomer Percival Lowell who claimed to have seen canals on the surface of Mars. He believed these canals had to have been created by some sort of intelligence, and this was the origin of all the stories of Martians living on Mars.
The next big leap in our knowledge of Mars came with the advent of the space age.
It wasn’t soon after Sputnik was put in orbit that there were attempts to reach the Red Planet.
Believe it or not, the 1960s saw the most launches for missions to try to reach Mars.
It was also the decade that had the worst results for trying to reach Mars.
The first attempt to reach Mars was in 1960. Only 3 years after Sputnik, was Marsnik 1 launched by the Soviet Union.
Two weeks later they launched Marsnik 2….and it failed.
They then waited two years for their next attempt in 1962 when they launched Sputnik 22…and it failed.
Then in the next week, they launched two more probes, Mars 1 and Sputnik 24….and they both failed.
The Soviets were 0 for 5 at the end of 1962 in their attempts to reach Mars.
Now, it isn’t as if the Americans could really brag about their accomplishments at this point in the space race. They had a series of very public failures in their attempt to just get into orbit.
The Americans made their first attempt to reach Mars in November 1964 with Mariner 3….and it failed.
Then they tried a few weeks later with Mariner 4….and it finally succeeded.
In July 1965, Mariner 4 flew by Mars and sent back some extremely low-res photos. I can’t stress how bad these photos were. Digital photography wasn’t really good back then, nor was the ability to send radio signals over interplanetary distances.
The first image from Mars looks like an out of focus photo image of your thumb you’d accidentally take with your smartphone. They did have a few good photos where you could actually see craters on the surface, but that was about it.
You might have noticed that this list of Mars attempts consisted of several launches a few weeks apart, and then about 2 years between the next attempts.
That is because there is a window for when you can launch something to Mars. That is because both the Earth and Mars are orbiting the sun, and they don’t orbit at the same speeds. It takes 2.1 years for the planets to be in the right position to send probes.
It isn’t just waiting for the two planets to be at their closest point to each other. They use what is called a Hohmann Transfer Orbit, which is the trajectory that uses the minimum amount of fuel.
You basically launch a rocket into an orbit around the sun, and then it meets up with Mars when it reaches the Martian orbit.
The Soviets tried another launch in 1964, Zond 2, and it failed again.
The next launch window was in 1969, and the American sent two more probes, Mariner 6 and 7, both of which did successful fly-bys of Mars.
The Soviets tried two more attempts, both of which failed. They were now 0-for-8 in Mars attempts.
There is something called the Mars Curse. That is because such a high percentage of all missions to Mars have failed. To be fair, most of those failed missions came in the 60s and 70s when technology and interplanetary mission experience were at their lowest.
Sending robots to Mars is really hard.
1971 saw a new launch window and a bunch of attempts.
The American set up Mariner 8….and it failed.
The Soviets sent Kosmos 419….and it failed.
The Soviets sent Mars 2…..and it sort of succeeded!
Mars 2 was an attempt at the first soft landing on the surface. The brakes on the lander didn’t work so it smashed into the surface, but it was the first human object on Mars. So we’ll give them particle credit for that one. Also, the orbital part of Mars 2 became the first artificial satellite in orbit around Mars.
After 9 failures, the Soviets had their first success and the future for Mars exploration started to look brighter.
Just a week after Mars 2 was launched, the Soviets sent Mars 3, which did manage to land softly on Mars, becoming the first lander to do so.
The Americans set up Mariner 9, which was the first American satellite to orbit Mars.
In the 1973 launch window, the Soviets sent 4 more probes, and the American set zero. Only one of the four attempts could really be considered a success. Two failed to orbit, and one crashed the lander again.
This ended what I’d call the first phase of Martian exploration. It was a whole bunch of probes sent to Mars, with most of them failing. The technology on the probes was poor, and just getting to Mars was really the point of most of the missions.
The Americans skipped the 1973 window because they had something much bigger in mind.
In 1975, the Americans launched Viking 1 and Viking 2. These were both orbiting satellites and landers.
The landers were much larger than anything which had even been attempted before. They were fueled with plutonium, they had color cameras, and the ability to sample and test the soil. Each lander was the size of a jeep.
I’d say these were the first proper landers and the real start of the exploration of Mars. Vikings 1 and 2 were both smashing successes in terms of both science and exploration. There is a full-scale version of the Viking lander on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
One of the soil sample tests run by both of the Viking landers had a result that was consistent with organic life. The rest of the results were negative, but scientists have been arguing about it for over 40 years.
Viking 1 lasted for 5 years, and Viking 2 lasted for 2 years before they ran out of power.
There were only two missions sent to Mars in the entire decade of the 1980s. Both were Soviet missions to the Martain moon Phobos, and both of them failed.
The 90s saw a renewed interest in Mars and the most launches since the 70s.
In 1992 NASA launched the Mars Observer mission….and it failed.
In 1996, they launched the Mars Global Surveyor mission which was to orbit Mars and map the surface. It succeeded and was functional for 10 years, returning the best images of Mars to date.
The Russians launched the Mars 96 missions, which crashed into the Pacific Ocean.
The big success of the 90s was the Pathfinder mission. This was the first rover to land on the surface, and the mission was a huge success. Moreover, it was done for under $200 million, which was less than the $3 billion of the Viking program in inflation-adjusted dollars.
The rest of the 90s was a disaster. The Japanese failed on their first attempt, and the Americans botched their next two missions: The Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander. The polar lander famously failed because the engineers were using both metric and imperial units and didn’t convert them.
After these failures, things really turned around.
In 2001, the Mars Odyssey was launched to orbit the planet, and it is still there today functioning. In addition to observing the surface, it also serves as a communication relay for landers.
The European Space Agency sent their Mars Express mission in 2003. The orbiter was successful, but their lander, known as Beagle 2, failed.
In 2003 the Spirit and Opportunity rovers were launched, and these were probably the best performing space missions of any sort in history. Their original mission was only scheduled for 90 Martain days. However, Spirit lasted until 2011 and Opportunity lasted all the way until 2019!
Opportunity ended up driving over 45 kilometers on the surface of Mars, which is a record for any rover on any extraterrestrial surface.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was launched in 2005, and it too is still functioning today.
2011 saw a failure of a joint Russian/Chinese mission, but the success of the American Curiosity Rover, which is still operating on the surface of Mars today.
In 2013, India launched its first mission to Mars and it was successful. The Indian Mars Orbiter Mission is still functioning today.
The 2010s ended with two more successful missions. The NASA MAVEN orbiter is analyzing Mars’ upper atmosphere, the joint Russian/European ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter.
The impetus for this episode was that 2020 saw another launch window, and several nations took advantage of it. The probes launched in 2020 have all been arriving at Mars in February 2021.
The United Arab Emirates sent their first space mission to Mars. Dubbed the Hope Orbiter, it successfully entered Martain orbit on February 9.
NASA’s Perseverance lander just landed a few days ago as I record this. It is the first lander with both a video camera and a microphone. It also has a small helicopter drone with it as well which will be the first object to fly in an extraterrestrial atmosphere.
Finally, the Chinese Tianwen-1 just entered Martain orbit a few days ago. It is currently checking out the surface and it is scheduled to attempt a landing with a rover in a few weeks.
This is a very exciting time for Mars exploration right now. As I speak, there are currently 8 working satellites in orbit around Mars and 2 functioning landers, with a possible third in just a few days.
You’ll have noticed that there hasn’t been a failed mission in a decade, with more countries joining the ranks of Mars explorers. We are getting better at this.
The next launch window will appear in 2022. The European Space Agency and Russia will jointly be sending a mission that will land the Rosalind Franklin rover, which will be equipped to check for signs of life.
India is planning on sending another orbiter and possibly a rover in 2024.
There are a whole bunch of proposals for other missions, but nothing has been firmly schedule beyond 2024.
The real goal, however, is to send humans to Mars. That is still a long way off, but it has pretty much been the assumed next big step ever since humans landed on the moon 50 years ago.
Right now, all of the robotic Mars missions are gathering data and paving the way for a future mission with humans. We still have problems to figure out, like how long would it take, how do we get them back, and how long do they stay on Mars.
Over the next several months we should be getting a steady stream of images, videos, and sound from the surface of Mars, and over the next few years, we should be seeing even more ambitious missions to the Red Planet.
Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is James Mackala.
The associate producer is Thor Thomsen.
Today’s five-star reviews come from Apple Podcasts in the United Kingdom. Listener Fawley_Remmie writes:
The range of topics is huge and frequently touches upon areas of my interest as well as engaging me in areas I’ve never given thought to. My 13 year old son constantly gets comments like “you really must listen to this one”! Keep up the great work…there’s nothing else out there like this.
Thank you very much Fawley_Remmie, and also a big thanks to your son. I hope he finds some of the episodes a starting point to learning more about some of the subjects I cover.
Everything Everywhere is also a podcast!
China lands unmanned spacecraft on Mars for the first time in history
An uncrewed Chinese spacecraft successfully landed on the surface of Mars on Saturday, state news agency Xinhua reported, making China the second space-faring nation after the United States to land on the Red Planet.
The Tianwen-1 spacecraft landed on a site on a vast plain known as Utopia Planitia, "leaving a Chinese footprint on Mars for the first time," Xinhua said.
The craft left its parked orbit at about 1700 GMT Friday (0100 Beijing time Saturday). The landing module separated from the orbiter three hours later and entered the Martian atmosphere, the official China Space News said.
It said the landing process consisted of "nine minutes of terror" as the module decelerates and then slowly descends.
A solar-powered rover, named Zhurong, will now survey the landing site before departing from its platform to conduct inspections. Named after a mythical Chinese god of fire, Zhurong has six scientific instruments including a high-resolution topography camera.
The rover will study the planet's surface soil and atmosphere. Zhurong will also look for signs of ancient life, including any sub-surface water and ice, using a ground-penetrating radar.
Tianwen-1, or "Questions to Heaven", after a Chinese poem written two millennia ago, is China's first independent mission to Mars. A probe co-launched with Russia in 2011 failed to leave the Earth's orbit.
The five-tonne spacecraft blasted off from the southern Chinese island of Hainan in July last year, launched by the powerful Long March 5 rocket.
After more than six months in transit, Tianwen-1 reached the Red Planet in February where it had been in orbit since.
If Zhurong is successfully deployed, China would be the first country to orbit, land and release a rover in its maiden mission to Mars.
Tianwen-1 was one of three that reached Mars in February, with U.S. rover Perseverance successfully touching down on Feb. 18 in a huge depression called Jezero Crater, more than 2,000 km away from Utopia Planitia.
Hope - the third spacecraft that arrived at Mars in February this year - is not designed to make a landing. Launched by the United Arab Emirates, it is currently orbiting above Mars gathering data on its weather and atmosphere.
The first successful landing ever was made by NASA's Viking 1 in July 1976 and then by Viking 2 in September that year. A Mars probe launched by the former Soviet Union landed in December 1971, but communication was lost seconds after landing.
China is pursuing an ambitious space programme . It is testing reusable spacecraft and is also planning to establish manned lunar research station.
In a commentary published on Saturday, Xinhua said China was “not looking to compete for leadership in space” but was committed to “unveiling the secrets of the universe and contributing to humanity’s peaceful use of space.”
Viking and Mars Links
Viking: Mission to Mars
Discover information about the original Viking missions, plus a link to the Viking Image Archive.
Solar System Exploration: Viking 1
Find out how the Viking 1 mission fits onto the overall history of solar system exploration, from the U.S. and NASA and beyond. Don't miss the companion page for Viking 2.
Explore with Curiosity
Explore the surface of Mars by virtually driving across it! The 3D terrain in this experience from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is made with images from the Curiosity rover and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Mars 2020: Perseverance
For the latest news on NASA's most recent venture to Mars, check out this site from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.