By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University
This is the third article in a seven-part series reviewing the extraterrestrial planets and other bodies of the solar system, as well as exploratory missions to study them.
Of all of the planets in our solar system, Mars seems to be the most promising for potential extraterrestrial life and for potential human colonization. In some ways, Mars is very similar to Earth. It rotates at about the same rate, and is in what is commonly referred to as the “habitable zone” of our solar system. Unfortunately, Mars also lacks some important ingredients for life as we know it, such as a thick atmosphere and a magnetic field to shield the planet from harmful solar radiation and cosmic rays.
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Nonetheless, Mars is in many ways the closest likeness to Earth in the solar system. As a result, space agencies have flown a number of missions to Mars in order to understand it better. Attempted missions to reach Mars began as early as 1962, and although the failures won’t be discussed here, there have been many more failed attempts than successful missions to Mars. Suffice to say, space is hard.
In 1964, Mariner 4 was launched and completed the first fly-by of Mars in 1965, taking the first detailed photos of the planet. Mariners 6 and 7 reached Mars in 1969 and took more photos that helped to establish the mass, radius, shape, and polar composition of the so-called red planet. Mariner 9 arrived at Mars in 1971 and was the first probe to achieve orbit around the planet. Mariner 9 took more than 7,200 photos of the planet, and studied its gravity, topography, and atmosphere.
In 1976, NASA achieved the first successful Mars landings with Vikings 1 and 2, ground probes that took weather readings and conducted soil experiments.
In 1997, the Mars Global Surveyor achieved orbit and was one of the most successful Mars missions. The Mars Global Surveyor gathered a plethora of data and advanced the scientific understanding of the planet for nine years until mission operators lost contact with it in 2006. NASA also put the Pathfinder lander on the Martian surface in 1997. Pathfinder successfully deployed a rover called Sojourner which gathered data and conducted experiments on the surface for almost 90 days.
In 2001, NASA’s Mars Odyssey probe achieved orbit. It used a thermal infrared camera to detect subsurface water ice on Mars. Odyssey also measured the radiation levels around the planet and determined that they were unsafe for humans without significant insulation. Odyssey is still active today.
In 2003, NASA’s Mars Express probe reached orbit and deployed a lander called Beagle. But the lander failed. Mars Express has taken high-detail 3D images of Mars and detected methane and evidence of recent volcanism on Mars.
In 2004, NASA landed the Spirit rover. Spirit confirmed evidence of past liquid water on Mars. But the rover eventually became stuck in sand when a wheel failed, and communication was lost in 2010. NASA also landed the Opportunity rover on Mars in 2004. Opportunity confirmed the presence of hematite on the surface and is currently exploring a crater basin.
In 2006, NASA successfully put the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) into orbit around the red planet. MRO has onboard the most powerful cameras and spectrometers ever sent to Mars. They are used to look for evidence of water, scout for future rover landing sites, and monitor weather patterns. MRO is still active today.
In 2008, NASA delivered the Phoenix lander to Mars, which landed near the north pole and conducted extensive chemical soil experiments.
In 2012, the NASA Curiosity rover landed on Mars. Curiosity is currently heading for the top of a mountain. Its most significant find so far is the discovery of organic material on the Martian surface.
In 2014, NASA put the MAVEN probe into orbit around Mars. MAVEN stands for Mars Atmospheric Volatile Evolution Mission. It is still active today, gathering data to help better understand Mars’s upper atmosphere and ionosphere.
In May 2018, NASA launched the InSight Mars lander, which landed on Mars in November 2018. InSight uses a seismometer, heat flow probe, and other instruments to study the interior of Mars.
NASA has plans to deliver the Mars 2020 rover — recently named Perseverance — to the Martian surface in 2021. Perseverance is a rover based on the Curiosity design that will study surface geology and the possibility of past and present habitability.
In 1971, the Mars 2 and 3 missions arrived at the red planet, but were only partially successful. They attempted to land probes on the surface, but a dust storm most likely doomed those mission components. Their orbiter missions were partially fulfilled, however, as they took photos and measured temperature, gravity, and magnetic field strength.
Mars 5 and 6 also achieved successful orbits in 1974. Mars 6 deployed an atmospheric probe that transmitted data back, most of which was unreadable due to a computer problem.
In 2014, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) successfully put its Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) into Martian orbit. It carries a basic scientific payload, and was more of a demonstration mission for the young space agency. MOM is still active today.
In 2016, the European Space Agency (ESA) successfully put the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter probe into Martian orbit. ExoMars included an atmospheric probe that took readings of methane and other trace gases during its descent through the atmosphere to try to understand the probability for microscopic life existing on Mars.
The European Space Agency (ESA) and the Roscosmos Space Corporation have postponed the launch of the second ExoMars mission to study the red planet to 2022.
Mars is an exciting planet with much to study and learn. It is one of the best chances for the existence of extraterrestrial life in the solar system, and probably the best opportunity for human colonization as well.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.