Record of Martian explorations

Print edition : November 15, 2013

1964 Mariner-4. Photo: NASA

1999 Mars Climate Orbiter. Photo: Corby Waste/JPL/NASA

1971 Mars 3. Photo: NASA

2001 Mars Odyssey Orbiter. Photo: NASA

1975 Viking 1. Photo: NASA

2003 Mars Express. Photo: NASA

1988 Phobos-1. Photo: NASA

1996 The rover Opportunity. Photo: NASA

1996 Mars Global Surveyor. Photo: Corby Waste/JPL/NASA

2005 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Photo: Corby Waste/JPL/NASA

THE HISTORY OF THE exploration of Mars by the United States, the Soviet Union (Russia), the European Space Agency (ESA) and Japan is a fascinating and chequered one of successes and failures. Despite the several failures, man’s fascination with Mars remains undiminished.

Here is a list of some of the important fly-bys past Mars and the orbiters and rovers sent to the planet.

1964 The U.S. sends Mariner-4 to fly by Mars. It passes round Mars in 1965 and sends grainy pictures of the planet, including its craters.

1971 The Soviet Union successfully lands on the planet a spacecraft called Mars 3. It transmits signals to earth for about 15 seconds and then falls silent. It is the very first spacecraft to land successfully on Mars.

The U.S. launches an orbiter called Mariner-9. When it enters the Martian orbit, a furious dust storm is raging on the planet. The orbiter beams down detailed pictures of the planet’s surface, which reveal a massive volcano, later named Olympus Mons (Latin for Mount Olympus). The majestic volcano is two to three times taller than Mount Everest.

By one measure, Oylmpus Mons is more than 22 kilometres in height, by others it is 27 km in height.

Mariner 9 also reveals the existence of a 4,000-km-long canyon on Mars, which is named Valles Marineris after the spacecraft that took pictures of it. In size, the Grand Canyon in the U.S. pales into insignificance compared with Valles Marineris.

1975 NASA launches Viking 1 and Viking 2 separately to Mars on August 20 and September 9. They land on Mars respectively on July 20, 1976, and September 3, 1976.

The NASA website says that its “Viking project found a place in history when it became the first U.S. mission to land a spacecraft safely on the surface of Mars and return images of the surface. Two identical spacecraft, each consisting of a lander and an orbiter, were built. Each orbiter-lander pair flew together and entered the Mars orbit; the landers then separated and descended to the planets’ surface…

“Besides taking photographs and collecting other science data on the Martian surface, the two landers conducted biology experiments designed to look for possible signs of life on Mars. These experiments discovered unexpected and enigmatic chemical activity in the Martian soil, but provided no clear evidence for the presence of living microorganisms in the soil near the landing sites….”

1988 The Soviet Union sends two spacecraft, Phobos-1 and Phobos-2, but both fail on their way to Mars.

1992 Seventeen years after the successful Viking 1 and Viking 2 missions, the U.S. sends Mars Observer but the spacecraft is lost on its way to the planet.

1996 The U.S. sends an orbiter called Mars Global Surveyor, which turns out to be a phenomenal success: it lasts for nine years and 52 days and proves to be the most productive of any mission ever sent to the red planet. Its pictures reveal a fund of information on the Martian surface.

The same year, the U.S. sends Mars Pathfinder, which lands on the planet with its robotic rover called Sojourner. Both the lander and Sojourner exceed their expected life and they send a mine of data, including photographs, about the planet.

Russia sends a spacecraft to Mars but it fails to get out of the earth’s orbit.

1998 Japan wants to put its Nozomi spacecraft into the Martian orbit but the spacecraft fails to make it.

1999 The U.S. loses two spacecraft: While contact with the Mars Climate Orbiter is lost while it is preparing to land on Mars, the Mars Polar Lander crashes when it is about to land.

2001 The U.S. launches the Mars Odyssey Orbiter and it is working even today.

2003 The ESA puts the spacecraft called Mars Express into the Martian orbit but its lander, named Beagle-2, crashes. Mars Express beams pictures of the planet even today.

2004 The U.S. lands two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, on Mars. Spirit conducts in situ experiments and beams pictures for eight years. Opportunity is still working.

2005 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, from the U.S., continues to work to this day.

2008 Mars Phoenix, launched from the U.S., lands in the north polar region of the planet.

2011 The Russian mission called Phobos-Grunt fails. It lifts off on November 8 to collect soil samples from the Martian moon called Phobos and send them back to the earth in a return capsule. It also carries a Chinese payload. “Grunt” means soil in the Russian language. Phobos-Grunt’s main engine does not fire after lift-off.

The same year, the U.S. launches the Mars Science Laboratory and its rover, Curiosity. The rover has conducted highly successful in situ experiments.

T.S. Subramanian





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