50th Anniversary of Mars exploration

By David A. Ord
…… ‘The Martian’ is coming…

Well, by the time you read this, he will probably have arrived in the form of the Ridley Scott movie of that name. This movie seems to have firm support from NASA, who perhaps see it as an ‘infomercial’ to secure further funding for their own manned mission to the red planet.

The movie is released in the 50th year anniversary of the first visit to Mars by a man-made object namely Mariner 4, which did a flyby on July 14th 1965. An image transmitted by the spacecraft and released the next day was man’s very first close-up of another planet.

mars 1

This image of Mars  was man’s very first close-up of another planet

The success of Mariner 4 was preceded by 6 earlier failures to explore the planet; 5 of  them by the Russians, despite their superior rocket technology at the time. Indeed, of some 43 missions to Mars to date, there have been only 19 successes, 23 defeats and 1 draw in which the Mars Express orbiter was fine, but its attempt at getting the Beagle lander safely on the surface failed.

Kennedy mariner probe

NASA present J.F. Kennedy with a model of the Mariner probe

 [In the above picture, the man right at the back is James Webb, an administrator at NASA at the time and after who is named the replacement for the Hubble telescope]

The Russians have attempted a total of 19 missions to Mars, of which, they can only count 3 as being successful. It remains an anathema to them.

After the initial success in 1965 of the Mariner 4 and further flyby probes, it became obvious that to generate more comprehensive data, it would be necessary to place a probe in a long-term orbit around the planet. In 1971, Mariner 9 became the first spacecraft to enter into orbit around Mars and was able to map around 85% of its surface. Also in 1971, the Russians tried to place a lander on the surface, but the curse of Mars struck again when their Mars 3 probe failed 14 seconds after hitting the surface. Favourable planetary alignment for missions to Mars only occurs every 26 months, so it was 1973 before the Russians could try again, alas only to fail once more.

The next window of opportunity for NASA was in 1975 when they sent Viking 1 and Viking 2 to Mars. Both craft had landers on board and both were successfully deployed on the surface in 1976.

Vallis marineris

Valles Marineris, the largest canyon in the Solar System – Viking orbiter

For several years, the Viking missions provided a wealth of information about the planet, but the main experiments looking for signs of previous life were inconclusive. The information gleaned did not excite and from the late 70s until the 1990s no further missions were undertaken by  NASA.

In the same time period, the Russians tried twice more, before succumbing to their nemesis and it was déjà’s vu again and again…

It was not until 1992 that NASA returned to study the red planet with the Mars Observer mission. Sadly, although the craft reached Mars, it was lost as it was being placed into orbit around the planet; so close, but no cigar.

In 1996, the first rover rolled onto the surface of Mars as part of the Mars Pathfinder mission; a test-bed project for future rover technology. Data transmitted suggested that the planet was once much warmer and wetter than it currently was and greater interest was generated.

NASA entered its ‘Let’s do it better, faster, cheaper’ era and several mission were to quickly follow. However, the new mantra proved its downfall when both missions to Mars in 1999 were lost; one caused by a ‘failure to convert from metric units to English’ when calculating the necessary orbit trajectory!

Meanwhile the Russians also tried again and well, you probably guess what happened…. And after that loss, it would be many years later in 2011 before they tried their luck again. So, perhaps when that mission also ended in yet another failure, who could blame them for looking for a scapegoat.

The 2011 mission to Mars was a joint effort by the Russians and the Chinese and its loss prompted the Russians to accuse the Americans of skulduggery. Lt. Gen. Nikolay Rodionov, a retired commander of Russia’s ballistic missile early warning system claimed U.S. technology in the form of “powerful radars in Alaska” could have caused the craft to malfunction.


The massive HAARP radar facility in Alaska – an active weapon?

He was referring to the HARP (High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program) system which performs active and passive radar experiments on the ionosphere, a layer of charged particles stretching from 50 to 1,000 Kms above Earth.

The station fires a radar beam to excite a localized patch of the ionosphere and uses ground-based passive devices to examine the effects. The output power is 3.6 Megawatts which is enough to heat up a reasonable chunk of the ionosphere.

But, the Americans would claim, it is no where near enough to fry the electronics of a passing spacecraft; although, it is true that no planes are allowed to fly in the area when the beam is firing.

The official cause of failure was ‘a massive solar coronal mass ejection’, which interfered with the electronics of the craft, but for which many Russian scientists claim there is no evidence and indeed it was excellent space weather at the time of the loss.

CUriosty rover

The Mars rover Curiosity – safely on the surface

Despite the many Mars mission failures, there have been some extraordinary successes and there are currently 5 space-craft, including the Indian MoM craft, in orbit around Mars and several landers on the surface, most of which have exceeded expectation. Without a doubt, one of the most exciting missions was the landing of the rover Curiosity on the surface of Mars in 2011. No less than 76 highly orchestrated pyrotechnics were used to land the 1 tonne mobile laboratory. It worked like a dream – all the more remarkable given the previous history of failure of Mars missions.

So, ‘The Martian’ is coming to a cinema near you. I do not want to give anything away, but in this movie, the mission to Mars does not go exactly to plan – fiction eh, you couldn’t make it up; its like science fiction mirroring reality. Enjoy!

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