Exploration of Mars facts for kids
- Recent missions
- Overview of missions
- Early Soviet missions
- Mariner program
- Viking program
- Mars Pathfinder
- Mars Global Surveyor
- Mars Odyssey and Mars Express
- MER and Phoenix
- Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
- Rosetta and Dawn swingbys
- Curiosity rover
- Mars Orbiter Mission
- Trace Gas Orbiter and EDM
- InSight and MarCO
- Tianwen-1 and Mars 2020
- Future missions
- Human mission proposals
- Images for kids
NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter entered Mars orbit in 2001. Odyssey's Gamma Ray Spectrometer detected significant amounts of hydrogen in the upper metre or so of regolith on Mars. This hydrogen is thought to be contained in large deposits of water ice.
The Mars Express mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) reached Mars in 2003. It carried the Beagle 2 lander, which was not heard from after being released and was declared lost in February 2004. Beagle 2 was located in January 2015 by HiRise camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) having landed safely but failed to fully deploy its solar panels and antenna. In early 2004 the Mars Express Planetary Fourier Spectrometer team announced the orbiter had detected methane in the Martian atmosphere. ESA announced in June 2006 the discovery of aurorae on Mars.
In January 2004, the NASA twin Mars Exploration Rovers named Spirit (MER-A) and Opportunity (MER-B) landed on the surface of Mars. Both have met or exceeded all their targets. Among the most significant scientific returns has been conclusive evidence that liquid water existed at some time in the past at both landing sites. Martian dust devils and windstorms have occasionally cleaned both rovers' solar panels, and thus increased their lifespan. Spirit Rover (MER-A) was active until 2010, when it stopped sending data because it had fallen into a sand dune.
On 10 March 2006, the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) probe arrived in orbit to conduct a two-year science survey. The orbiter began mapping the Martian terrain and weather to find suitable landing sites for upcoming lander missions. The MRO snapped the first image of a series of active avalanches near the planet's north pole, scientists said March 3, 2008.
The Mars Science Laboratory mission was launched on November 26, 2011 and it delivered the Curiosity rover, on the surface of Mars on August 6, 2012 UTC. It is larger and more advanced than the Mars Exploration Rovers, with a velocity of up to 90 meters per hour (295 feet per hour). Experiments include a laser chemical sampler that can deduce the make-up of rocks at a distance of 7 meters. The next US mission to arrive would be MAVEN
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched its Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) on November 5, 2013. It was successfully inserted into Mars orbit on 24 September 2014. India's ISRO is the fourth space agency to reach Mars, after the Soviet space program, NASA and ESA. India became the first country to successfully get a spacecraft into Mars orbit on its maiden attempt.
The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter arrived at Mars in 2016 and deployed the Schiaparelli EDM lander, a test lander that had partial success. Crash-landed on surface, but transmitted data during descent.
Overview of missions
The following entails a brief overview of Mars exploration, oriented towards orbiters and flybys; see also Mars landing and Mars rover.
Early Soviet missions
Between 1960 and 1969, the Soviet Union launched nine probes intended to reach Mars. They all failed: three at launch; three failed to reach near-Earth orbit; one during the burn to put the spacecraft into trans-Mars trajectory; and two during the interplanetary orbit.
The Mars 1M programs (sometimes dubbed Marsnik in Western media) was the first Soviet unmanned spacecraft interplanetary exploration program, which consisted of two flyby probes launched towards Mars in October 1960, Mars 1960A and Mars 1960B (also known as Korabl 4 and Korabl 5 respectively). After launch, the third stage pumps on both launchers were unable to develop enough pressure to commence ignition, so Earth parking orbit was not achieved. The spacecraft reached an altitude of 120 km before reentry.
Mars 1962A was a Mars fly-by mission, launched on October 24, 1962 and Mars 1962B an intended first Mars lander mission, launched in late December of the same year (1962). Both failed from either breaking up as they were going into Earth orbit or having the upper stage explode in orbit during the burn to put the spacecraft into trans-Mars trajectory.
The first success
NASA had launched an orbiter on 28 November 1952, it flew by Mars on 14 July 1965, it got 21 photos before it broke down.
Mars 1 (1962 Beta Nu 1), an automatic interplanetary spacecraft launched to Mars on November 1, 1962, was the first probe of the Soviet Mars probe program to achieve interplanetary orbit. Mars 1 was intended to fly by the planet at a distance of about 11,000 km and take images of the surface as well as send back data on cosmic radiation, micrometeoroid impacts and Mars' magnetic field, radiation environment, atmospheric structure, and possible organic compounds. Sixty-one radio transmissions were held, initially at two-day intervals and later at 5 day intervals, from which a large amount of interplanetary data was collected. On 21 March 1963, when the spacecraft was at a distance of 106,760,000 km from Earth, on its way to Mars, communications ceased due to failure of its antenna orientation system.
In 1964, both Soviet probe launches, of Zond 1964A on June 4, and Zond 2 on November 30, (part of the Zond program), resulted in failures. Zond 1964A had a failure at launch, while communication was lost with Zond 2 en route to Mars after a mid-course maneuver, in early May 1965.
In 1969, and as part of the Mars probe program, the Soviet Union prepared two identical 5-ton orbiters called M-69, dubbed by NASA as Mars 1969A and Mars 1969B. Both probes were lost in launch-related complications with the newly developed Proton rocket.
The USSR intended to have the first artificial satellite of Mars beating the planned American Mariner 8 and Mariner 9 Mars orbiters. In May 1971, one day after Mariner 8 malfunctioned at launch and failed to reach orbit, Cosmos 419 (Mars 1971C), a heavy probe of the Soviet Mars program M-71, also failed to launch. This spacecraft was designed as an orbiter only, while the next two probes of project M-71, Mars 2 and Mars 3, were multipurpose combinations of an orbiter and a lander with small skis-walking rovers that would be the first planet rovers outside the Moon. They were successfully launched in mid-May 1971 and reached Mars about seven months later. On November 27, 1971 the lander of Mars 2 crash-landed due to an on-board computer malfunction and became the first man-made object to reach the surface of Mars. On 2 December 1971, the Mars 3 lander became the first spacecraft to achieve a soft landing, but its transmission was interrupted after 14.5 seconds.
The Mars 2 and 3 orbiters sent back a relatively large volume of data covering the period from December 1971 to March 1972, although transmissions continued through to August. By 22 August 1972, after sending back data and a total of 60 pictures, Mars 2 and 3 concluded their missions. The images and data enabled creation of surface relief maps, and gave information on the Martian gravity and magnetic fields.
In 1973, the Soviet Union sent four more probes to Mars: the Mars 4 and Mars 5 orbiters and the Mars 6 and Mars 7 fly-by/lander combinations. All missions except Mars 7 sent back data, with Mars 5 being most successful. That is not to say much about the fourth missions, Mars 5 died less than three weeks after entering orbit. Mars 5 transmitted just 60 images before a loss of pressurization in the transmitter housing ended the mission. Mars 6 lander transmitted data during descent, but failed upon impact. Mars 4 flew by the planet at a range of 2200 km returning one swath of pictures and radio occultation data, which constituted the first detection of the nightside ionosphere on Mars. Mars 7 probe separated prematurely from the carrying vehicle due to a problem in the operation of one of the onboard systems (attitude control or retro-rockets) and missed the planet by 1,300 kilometres (8.7×10−6 au).
In 1964, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory made two attempts at reaching Mars. Mariner 3 and Mariner 4 were identical spacecraft designed to carry out the first flybys of Mars. Mariner 3 was launched on November 5, 1964, but the shroud encasing the spacecraft atop its rocket failed to open properly, dooming the mission. Three weeks later, on November 28, 1964, Mariner 4 was launched successfully on a 7½-month voyage to Mars..
Mariner 4 flew past Mars on July 14, 1965, providing the first close-up photographs of another planet. The pictures, gradually played back to Earth from a small tape recorder on the probe, showed impact craters. It provided radically more accurate data about the planet; a surface atmospheric pressure of about 1% of Earth's and daytime temperatures of −100 °C (−148 °F) were estimated. No magnetic field or Martian radiation belts were detected. The new data meant redesigns for then planned Martian landers, and showed life would have a more difficult time surviving there than previously anticipated.
NASA continued the Mariner program with another pair of Mars flyby probes, Mariner 6 and 7. They were sent at the next launch window, and reached the planet in 1969. During the following launch window the Mariner program again suffered the loss of one of a pair of probes. Mariner 9 successfully entered orbit about Mars, the first spacecraft ever to do so, after the launch time failure of its sister ship, Mariner 8. When Mariner 9 reached Mars in 1971, it and two Soviet orbiters (Mars 2 and Mars 3, see Mars probe program below) found that a planet-wide dust storm was in progress. The mission controllers used the time spent waiting for the storm to clear to have the probe rendezvous with, and photograph, Phobos. When the storm cleared sufficiently for Mars' surface to be photographed by Mariner 9, the pictures returned represented a substantial advance over previous missions. These pictures were the first to offer more detailed evidence that liquid water might at one time have flowed on the planetary surface. They also finally discerned the true nature of many Martian albedo features. For example, Nix Olympica was one of only a few features that could be seen during the planetary duststorm, revealing it to be the highest mountain (volcano, to be exact) on any planet in the entire Solar System, and leading to its reclassification as Olympus Mons.
The Viking program launched Viking 1 and 2 spacecraft to Mars in 1975; The program consisted of two orbiters and two landers – these were the first two spacecraft to successfully land and operate on Mars.
The primary scientific objectives of the lander mission were to search for biosignatures and observe meteorologic, seismic and magnetic properties of Mars. The results of the biological experiments on board the Viking landers remain inconclusive, with a reanalysis of the Viking data published in 2012 suggesting signs of microbial life on Mars.
The Viking orbiters revealed that large floods of water carved deep valleys, eroded grooves into bedrock, and traveled thousands of kilometers. Areas of branched streams, in the southern hemisphere, suggest that rain once fell.
Mars Pathfinder was a U.S. spacecraft that landed a base station with a roving probe on Mars on July 4, 1997. It consisted of a lander and a small 10.6 kilograms (23 lb) wheeled robotic rover named Sojourner, which was the first rover to operate on the surface of Mars. In addition to scientific objectives, the Mars Pathfinder mission was also a "proof-of-concept" for various technologies, such as an airbag landing system and automated obstacle avoidance, both later exploited by the Mars Exploration Rovers.
Mars Global Surveyor
After the 1992 failure of NASA's Mars Observer orbiter, NASA retooled and launched Mars Global Surveyor (MGS). Mars Global Surveyor launched on November 7, 1996, and entered orbit on September 12, 1997. After a year and a half trimming its orbit from a looping ellipse to a circular track around the planet, the spacecraft began its primary mapping mission in March 1999. It observed the planet from a low-altitude, nearly polar orbit over the course of one complete Martian year, the equivalent of nearly two Earth years. Mars Global Surveyor completed its primary mission on January 31, 2001, and completed several extended mission phases.
The mission studied the entire Martian surface, atmosphere, and interior, and returned more data about the red planet than all previous Mars missions combined. The data has been archived and remains available publicly.
Among key scientific findings, Global Surveyor took pictures of gullies and debris flow features that suggest there may be current sources of liquid water, similar to an aquifer, at or near the surface of the planet. Similar channels on Earth are formed by flowing water, but on Mars the temperature is normally too cold and the atmosphere too thin to sustain liquid water. Nevertheless, many scientists hypothesize that liquid groundwater can sometimes surface on Mars, erode gullies and channels, and pool at the bottom before freezing and evaporating.
Magnetometer readings showed that the planet's magnetic field is not globally generated in the planet's core, but is localized in particular areas of the crust. New temperature data and closeup images of the Martian moon Phobos showed that its surface is composed of powdery material at least 1 metre (3 feet) thick, caused by millions of years of meteoroid impacts. Data from the spacecraft's laser altimeter gave scientists their first 3-D views of Mars' north polar ice cap. On November 5, 2006 MGS lost contact with Earth. NASA ended efforts to restore communication on January 28, 2007.
Mars Odyssey and Mars Express
In 2001, NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter arrived at Mars. Its mission is to use spectrometers and imagers to hunt for evidence of past or present water and volcanic activity on Mars. In 2002, it was announced that the probe's gamma ray spectrometer and neutron spectrometer had detected large amounts of hydrogen, indicating that there are vast deposits of water ice in the upper three meters of Mars' soil within 60° latitude of the south pole.
On June 2, 2003, the European Space Agency's Mars Express set off from Baikonur Cosmodrome to Mars. The Mars Express craft consists of the Mars Express Orbiter and the stationary lander Beagle 2. The lander carried a digging device and the smallest mass spectrometer created to date, as well as a range of other devices, on a robotic arm in order to accurately analyze soil beneath the dusty surface to look for biosignatures and biomolecules.
The orbiter entered Mars orbit on December 25, 2003, and Beagle 2 entered Mars' atmosphere the same day. However, attempts to contact the lander failed. Communications attempts continued throughout January, but Beagle 2 was declared lost in mid-February, and a joint inquiry was launched by the UK and ESA. The Mars Express Orbiter confirmed the presence of water ice and carbon dioxide ice at the planet's south pole, while NASA had previously confirmed their presence at the north pole of Mars.
The lander's fate remained a mystery until it was located intact on the surface of Mars in a series of images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The images suggest that two of the spacecraft's four solar panels failed to deploy, blocking the spacecraft's communications antenna. Beagle 2 is the first British and first European probe to achieve a soft landing on Mars.
MER and Phoenix
NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Mission (MER), started in 2003, is an ongoing robotic space mission involving two rovers, Spirit (MER-A) and Opportunity, (MER-B) exploring the Martian surface geology. The mission's scientific objective is to search for and characterize a wide range of rocks and soils that hold clues to past water activity on Mars. The mission is part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, which includes three previous successful landers: the two Viking program landers in 1976; and Mars Pathfinder probe in 1997.
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is a multipurpose spacecraft designed to conduct reconnaissance and exploration of Mars from orbit. The $720 million USD spacecraft was built by Lockheed Martin under the supervision of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, launched August 12, 2005, and entered Mars orbit on March 10, 2006.
The MRO contains a host of scientific instruments such as the HiRISE camera, CTX camera, CRISM, and SHARAD. The HiRISE camera is used to analyze Martian landforms, whereas CRISM and SHARAD can detect water, ice, and minerals on and below the surface. Additionally, MRO is paving the way for upcoming generations of spacecraft through daily monitoring of Martian weather and surface conditions, searching for future landing sites, and testing a new telecommunications system that enable it to send and receive information at an unprecedented bitrate, compared to previous Mars spacecraft. Data transfer to and from the spacecraft occurs faster than all previous interplanetary missions combined and allows it to serve as an important relay satellite for other missions.
Rosetta and Dawn swingbys
In November 8, 2011, Russia's Roscosmos launched an ambitious mission called Fobos-Grunt. It consisted of a lander aimed to retrieve a sample back to Earth from Mars' moon Phobos, and place the Chinese Yinghuo-1 probe in Mars' orbit. The Fobos-Grunt mission suffered a complete control and communications failure shortly after launch and was left stranded in low Earth orbit, later falling back to Earth. The Yinghuo-1 satellite and Fobos-Grunt underwent destructive re-entry on January 15, 2012, finally disintegrating over the Pacific Ocean.
The NASA Mars Science Laboratory mission with its rover named Curiosity, was launched on November 26, 2011, and landed on Mars on August 6, 2012 on Aeolis Palus in Gale Crater. The rover carries instruments designed to look for past or present conditions relevant to the past or present habitability of Mars.
NASA's MAVEN is an orbiter mission to study the upper atmosphere of Mars. It will also serve as a communications relay satellite for robotic landers and rovers on the surface of Mars. MAVEN was launched 18 November 2013 and reached Mars on 22 September 2014.
Mars Orbiter Mission
The Mars Orbiter Mission, also called Mangalyaan, was launched on 5 November 2013 by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). It was successfully inserted into Martian orbit on 24 September 2014. The mission is a technology demonstrator, and as secondary objective, it will also study the Martian atmosphere. This is India's first mission to Mars, and with it, ISRO became the fourth space agency to successfully reach Mars after the Soviet Union, NASA (USA) and ESA (Europe). It also made ISRO the second space agency to reach Mars orbit on its first attempt (the first national one, after the international ESA), and also the first Asian country to successfully send an orbiter to Mars. It was completed in a record low budget of $71 million, making it the least-expensive Mars mission to date.
Trace Gas Orbiter and EDM
The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is an atmospheric research orbiter built in collaboration between ESA and Roscosmos. It was injected into Mars orbit on 19 October 2016 to gain a better understanding of methane (CH4) and other trace gases present in the Martian atmosphere that could be evidence for possible biological or geological activity.
The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission is a robotic lander designed to study the deep interior of the planet Mars. It was manufactured by Lockheed Martin and is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The mission launched on 5 May 2018 at 11:05 UTC aboard an Atlas V-401 rocket and successfully landed at Elysium Planitia on Mars on November 26, 2018, 19:52:59 UTC. InSight traveled 483 million km (300 million mi) during its journey.
InSight and MarCO
In August 2012, NASA selected InSight, a $425 million lander mission with a heat flow probe and seismometer, to determine the deep interior structure of Mars. Two flyby CubeSats called MarCO were launched with InSight on 5 May 2018 to provide real-time telemetry during the entry and landing of InSight. The CubeSats separated from the Atlas V booster 1.5 hours after launch and traveled their own trajectories to Mars. InSight landed successfully on Mars on 26 November 2018.
The United Arab Emirates launched the Hope Mars Mission, in July 2020 on the Japanese H-IIA booster. It was successfully placed into orbit on 9 February 2021. It is studying the Martian atmosphere and weather.
Tianwen-1 and Mars 2020
Tianwen-1 is a Chinese mission, launched on 23 July 2020. It includes an orbiter, a lander and a small rover. The orbiter was placed into orbit on 10 February 2021. The lander and rover are currently planned to land in May 2021.
The Mars 2020 mission by NASA was launched on 30 July 2020 on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral. It is based on the Mars Science Laboratory design. The scientific payload is focused on astrobiology. It includes Perseverance rover and Mars Helicopter Ingenuity.
After traveling 293 million miles to reach Mars over the course of more than six months, Perseverance successfully landed on February 18, 2021. Its initial mission is scheduled for nearly two years. It will search for signs of ancient life and explore the red planet's surface.
Missions to Mars in the summer of 2020 include: Hope Orbiter (launched 19 July 2020), Tianwen-1 (launched 23 July 2020).
- As part of the ExoMars program, ESA and the Roscosmos plan to send the Rosalind Franklin rover in 2022 to search for evidence of past or present microscopic life on Mars. The lander to deliver the rover is called Kazachok, and it will perform scientific studies for about 2 years.
- India's ISRO plans to send a follow-up mission to its Mars Orbiter Mission in 2024; it is called Mars Orbiter Mission 2 (MOM-2) and it will consist of an orbiter, and probably a rover.
- The Finnish-Russian Mars MetNet concept would use multiple small meteorological stations on Mars to establish a widespread observation network to investigate the planet's atmospheric structure, physics and meteorology. The MetNet precursor or demonstrator was considered for a piggyback launch on Fobos-Grunt, and on the two proposed to fly on the 2016 and 2020 ExoMars spacecraft.
- The Mars-Grunt is a Russian mission concept to bring a sample of Martian soil to Earth.
- A ESA-NASA team produced a three-launch architecture concept for a Mars sample return, which uses a rover to cache small samples, a Mars ascent stage to send it into orbit, and an orbiter to rendezvous with it above Mars and take it to Earth. Solar-electric propulsion could allow a one launch sample return instead of three.
- The Mars Scout Program's SCIM would involve a probe grazing the upper atmosphere of Mars to collect dust and air for return to Earth.
- JAXA is working on a mission concept called MELOS rover that would look for biosignatures of extant life on Mars.
Other future mission concepts include polar probes, Martian aircraft and a network of small meteorological stations. Longterm areas of study may include Martian lava tubes, resource utilization, and electronic charge carriers in rocks. Micromissions are another possibility, such as piggybacking a small spacecraft on an Ariane 5 rocket and using a lunar gravity assist to get to Mars.
Human mission proposals
The human exploration of Mars has been an aspiration since the earliest days of modern rocketry; Robert H. Goddard credits the idea of reaching Mars as his own inspiration to study the physics and engineering of space flight. Proposals for human exploration of Mars have been made throughout the history of space exploration; currently there are multiple active plans and programs to put humans on Mars within the next ten to thirty years, both governmental and private, some of which are listed below.
Human exploration by the United States was identified as a long-term goal in the Vision for Space Exploration announced in 2004 by then US President George W. Bush. The planned Orion spacecraft would be used to send a human expedition to Earth's moon by 2020 as a stepping stone to a Mars expedition. On September 28, 2007, NASA administrator Michael D. Griffin stated that NASA aims to put a person on Mars by 2037.
On December 2, 2014, NASA's Advanced Human Exploration Systems and Operations Mission Director Jason Crusan and Deputy Associate Administrator for Programs James Reuthner announced tentative support for the Boeing "Affordable Mars Mission Design" including radiation shielding, centrifugal artificial gravity, in-transit consumable resupply, and a lander which can return. Reuthner suggested that if adequate funding was forthcoming, the proposed mission would be expected in the early 2030s.
On October 8, 2015, NASA published its official plan for human exploration and colonization of Mars. They called it "Journey to Mars". The plan operates through three distinct phases leading up to fully sustained colonization.
- The first stage, already underway, is the "Earth Reliant" phase. This phase continues utilizing the International Space Station until 2024; validating deep space technologies and studying the effects of long duration space missions on the human body.
- The second stage, "Proving Ground," moves away from Earth reliance and ventures into cislunar space for most of its tasks. This is when NASA plans to capture an asteroid (planned for 2020), test deep space habitation facilities, and validate capabilities required for human exploration of Mars. Finally, phase three is the transition to independence from Earth resources.
- The last stage, the "Earth Independent" phase, includes long term missions on the lunar surface which leverage surface habitats that only require routine maintenance, and the harvesting of Martian resources for fuel, water, and building materials. NASA is still aiming for human missions to Mars in the 2030s, though Earth independence could take decades longer.
On August 28, 2015, NASA funded a year long simulation to study the effects of a year long Mars mission on six scientists. The scientists lived in a bio dome on a Mauna Loa mountain in Hawaii with limited connection to the outside world and were only allowed outside if they were wearing spacesuits.
NASAs human Mars exploration plans have evolved through the NASA Mars Design Reference Missions, a series of design studies for human exploration of Mars.
In 2017 the focus of NASA shifted to a return to the Moon by 2024 with the Artemis program, a flight to Mars could follow after this project.
The long-term goal of the private corporation SpaceX is the establishment of routine flights to Mars to enable colonization. To this end, the company is developing Starship, a spacecraft capable of crew transportation to Mars and other celestial bodies, along with its booster Super Heavy. In 2017 SpaceX announced plans to send two uncrewed Starships to Mars by 2022, followed by two more uncrewed flights and two crewed flights in 2024. Starship is planned to have a payload of at least 100 tonnes. Starship is designed to use a combination of aerobraking and propulsive descent, utilizing fuel produced from a Mars (in situ resource utilization) facility. As of early 2021, the Starship development program has seen successful testing of several Starship prototypes. Most notably, Starship SN8, which performed its first test flight in December 2020, was a partial success. Although major objectives were achieved, including stable ascent, descent and flip maneuver, it crashed upon landing due to pressurization issues in a fuel tank. A similar approach is intended to be used on Mars.
Mars Direct, a low-cost human mission proposed by Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society, would use heavy-lift Saturn V class rockets, such as the Ares V, to skip orbital construction, LEO rendezvous, and lunar fuel depots. A modified proposal, called "Mars to Stay", involves not returning the first immigrant explorers immediately, if ever (see Colonization of Mars).
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Exploration of Mars Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.