Exploration of Mars facts for kids

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The exploration of Mars has been an important part of the space exploration programs of the Soviet Union (later Russia), the United States, Europe, and Japan.

Methods

Dozens of robotic spacecraft, including orbiters, landers, and rovers, have been launched toward Mars since the 1960s.

Recent missions

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Curiosity's self-portrait on the planet Mars at "Rocknest" (October 31, 2012).
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The Electra radio of the MAVEN orbiter

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

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Mars 1M spacecraft.
1960s

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.

1970s

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).

Mariner program

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The first close-up images taken of Mars in 1965 from Mariner 4 show an area about 330 km across by 1200 km from limb to bottom of frame.

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.

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Mariner Crater, as seen by Mariner 4. The location is Phaethontis quadrangle.

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.

Viking program

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.

Viking 1 lander site (1st color, July 21, 1976).
Viking 2 lander site (1st color, September 5, 1976).
Viking 2 lander site (September 25, 1977).
(False color image) Frost at Viking 2 site (May 18, 1979).
Martian sunset over Chryse Planitia at Viking 1 site (August 20, 1976).

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.

Flood erosion at Dromore crater.
Tear-drop shaped islands at Oxia Palus.
Streamlined islands in Lunae Palus.
Scour patterns located in Lunae Palus.

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

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Sojourner takes Alpha Proton X-ray Spectrometer measurements of the Yogi Rock.

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

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Gullies, similar to those formed on Earth, are visible on this image from 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.

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A color-coded elevation map produced from data collected by Mars Global Surveyor indicating the result of floods on Mars.

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

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Polar surface as seen by the Phoenix lander.

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

The ESA Rosetta space probe mission to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko flew within 250 km of Mars on February 25, 2007, in a gravitational slingshot designed to slow and redirect the spacecraft.

The NASA Dawn spacecraft used the gravity of Mars in 2009 to change direction and velocity on its way to Vesta, and tested out Dawn's cameras and other instruments on Mars.

Fobos-Grunt

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.

Curiosity rover

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Curiosity's view of Aeolis Mons ("Mount Sharp") foothills on August 9, 2012 EDT (white balanced image).

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.

MAVEN

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

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NASA team cheers as the InSight Lander touches down on Mars. (26 November 2018)

InSight's objectives are to place a seismometer, called SEIS, on Mars's surface to measure seismic activity and provide accurate 3D models of the planet's interior; and measure internal heat flow using a heat probe called HP3 to study Mars's early geological evolution. This could bring a new understanding of the Solar System's terrestrial planetsMercury, Venus, Earth, Mars—and Earth's Moon.

The lander was originally planned for launch in March 2016. Following a persistent vacuum failure in the SEIS instrument prior to launch, with the 2016 launch window missed, InSight was returned to Lockheed Martin's facility in Denver, Colorado, for storage. NASA officials decided in March 2016 to delay launching InSight to May 2018. This allowed time for the seismometer issue to be fixed, although it increased the cost from the previous US$675 million to a total of US$830 million. By reusing technology from the Mars Phoenix lander, which successfully landed on Mars in 2008, mission costs were reduced.

Future missions

Computer-Design Drawing for NASA's 2020 Mars Rover
Computer-design drawing for NASA's 2020 Mars Rover.
  • As part of the ExoMars program, ESA and the Russian Federal Space Agency plan to send the ExoMars rover in 2020 to search for past or present microscopic life on Mars.
  • The Mars 2020 rover mission by NASA will be launched in 2020, and it is based on the Mars Science Laboratory design. The scientific payload will be focused on astrobiology.
  • The 2020 Chinese Mars Mission is planned to comprise an orbiter, a lander and a small rover.
  • The United Arab Emirates will send an orbiter to Mars, the Emirates Mars Mission, in 2020.
  • The ISRO plans to send a follow up mission to its Mars Orbiter Mission in the 2021–2022 timeframe; it is called Mangalyaan 2. This mission will consist of a lander and possibly a rover.

Exploration of Mars Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.