A History of Mars Exploration

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Ever since humans looked up at the stars they noticed that a few of them were different from the others. They moved. 

These moving points of light were planets. One of those points of light was, of course, the planet Mars. 

This first observation of Mars by early humans slowly and inexorably lead to landing robots on the surface of the planet. 

Learn more about our exploration of Mars on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

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As I mentioned in the introduction, the exploration of Mars can be considered to have begun in pre-history. As far as we know, every civilization was aware of Mars and was able to track its position in the sky. The first written mention of Mars was by the Egyptians, and even then they were aware of its retrograde motion, where sometimes the planet appeared to move backward in the sky, which is caused by the Earth passing the slower planet in its orbit. 

The Sumerians, Greeks, and Romans all associated Mars with their gods of war. The ancient Chinese associated it with the element fire. 

Beyond tracking the point of light in the sky, there wasn’t much more that ancient people could do. 

The next big advance came with the development of telescopes. 

The first person to view Mars with a telescope was Galileo in the early 17th century. His telescopes weren’t powerful enough to get a clear image of the planet, so he just wanted to know if Mars exhibited phases like Venus and the Moon did.

He didn’t see phases, but what he did discover was that Mars would grow bigger and smaller in size. 

Later in the century as telescopes improved, astronomers began to report seeing dark blotches on the planet, and even light areas at its poles. 

During this time, they were able to get good approximations of the length of a Martian day, and of the size of Mars relative to Earth. 

As telescopes improved, our knowledge of Mars really didn’t. If anything, it might have gone backward. 

The telescopes were big enough to denote patches of light and dark on the surface, but it wasn’t enough to get any real detail. In fact, the sketches and maps of the planet which were made by astronomers through the 19th century were all found to be horribly wrong.. 

The best example of this came from the astronomer Percival Lowell who claimed to have seen canals on the surface of Mars. He believed these canals had to have been created by some sort of intelligence, and this was the origin of all the stories of Martians living on Mars. 

The next big leap in our knowledge of Mars came with the advent of the space age. 

It wasn’t soon after Sputnik was put in orbit that there were attempts to reach the Red Planet. 

Believe it or not, the 1960s saw the most launches for missions to try to reach Mars. 

It was also the decade that had the worst results for trying to reach Mars.

The first attempt to reach Mars was in 1960. Only 3 years after Sputnik, was Marsnik 1 launched by the Soviet Union.

It failed.

Two weeks later they launched Marsnik 2….and it failed. 

They then waited two years for their next attempt in 1962 when they launched Sputnik 22…and it failed. 

Then in the next week, they launched two more probes, Mars 1 and Sputnik 24….and they both failed.

The Soviets were 0 for 5 at the end of 1962 in their attempts to reach Mars. 

Now, it isn’t as if the Americans could really brag about their accomplishments at this point in the space race. They had a series of very public failures in their attempt to just get into orbit. 

The Americans made their first attempt to reach Mars in November 1964 with Mariner 3….and it failed. 

Then they tried a few weeks later with Mariner 4….and it finally succeeded. 

In July 1965, Mariner 4 flew by Mars and sent back some extremely low-res photos. I can’t stress how bad these photos were. Digital photography wasn’t really good back then, nor was the ability to send radio signals over interplanetary distances. 

The first image from Mars looks like an out of focus photo image of your thumb you’d accidentally take with your smartphone. They did have a few good photos where you could actually see craters on the surface, but that was about it.

You might have noticed that this list of Mars attempts consisted of several launches a few weeks apart, and then about 2 years between the next attempts. 

That is because there is a window for when you can launch something to Mars. That is because both the Earth and Mars are orbiting the sun, and they don’t orbit at the same speeds. It takes 2.1 years for the planets to be in the right position to send probes. 

It isn’t just waiting for the two planets to be at their closest point to each other. They use what is called a Hohmann Transfer Orbit, which is the trajectory that uses the minimum amount of fuel. 

You basically launch a rocket into an orbit around the sun, and then it meets up with Mars when it reaches the Martian orbit. 

The Soviets tried another launch in 1964, Zond 2, and it failed again. 

The next launch window was in 1969, and the American sent two more probes, Mariner 6 and 7, both of which did successful fly-bys of Mars.

The Soviets tried two more attempts, both of which failed. They were now 0-for-8 in Mars attempts. 

There is something called the Mars Curse. That is because such a high percentage of all missions to Mars have failed. To be fair, most of those failed missions came in the 60s and 70s when technology and interplanetary mission experience were at their lowest. 

Sending robots to Mars is really hard. 

1971 saw a new launch window and a bunch of attempts. 

The American set up Mariner 8….and it failed.

The Soviets sent Kosmos 419….and it failed.

The Soviets sent Mars 2…..and it sort of succeeded! 

Mars 2 was an attempt at the first soft landing on the surface. The brakes on the lander didn’t work so it smashed into the surface, but it was the first human object on Mars. So we’ll give them particle credit for that one. Also, the orbital part of Mars 2 became the first artificial satellite in orbit around Mars. 

After 9 failures, the Soviets had their first success and the future for Mars exploration started to look brighter. 

Just a week after Mars 2 was launched, the Soviets sent Mars 3, which did manage to land softly on Mars, becoming the first lander to do so. 

The Americans set up Mariner 9, which was the first American satellite to orbit Mars.

In the 1973 launch window, the Soviets sent 4 more probes, and the American set zero. Only one of the four attempts could really be considered a success. Two failed to orbit, and one crashed the lander again. 

This ended what I’d call the first phase of Martian exploration. It was a whole bunch of probes sent to Mars, with most of them failing. The technology on the probes was poor, and just getting to Mars was really the point of most of the missions. 

The Americans skipped the 1973 window because they had something much bigger in mind. 

In 1975, the Americans launched Viking 1 and Viking 2. These were both orbiting satellites and landers. 

The landers were much larger than anything which had even been attempted before. They were fueled with plutonium, they had color cameras, and the ability to sample and test the soil. Each lander was the size of a jeep. 

I’d say these were the first proper landers and the real start of the exploration of Mars. Vikings 1 and 2 were both smashing successes in terms of both science and exploration. There is a full-scale version of the Viking lander on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

One of the soil sample tests run by both of the Viking landers had a result that was consistent with organic life. The rest of the results were negative, but scientists have been arguing about it for over 40 years. 

Viking 1 lasted for 5 years, and Viking 2 lasted for 2 years before they ran out of power. 

There were only two missions sent to Mars in the entire decade of the 1980s. Both were Soviet missions to the Martain moon Phobos, and both of them failed. 

The 90s saw a renewed interest in Mars and the most launches since the 70s.

In 1992 NASA launched the Mars Observer mission….and it failed.

In 1996, they launched the Mars Global Surveyor mission which was to orbit Mars and map the surface. It succeeded and was functional for 10 years, returning the best images of Mars to date. 

The Russians launched the Mars 96 missions, which crashed into the Pacific Ocean. 

The big success of the 90s was the Pathfinder mission. This was the first rover to land on the surface, and the mission was a huge success. Moreover, it was done for under $200 million, which was less than the $3 billion of the Viking program in inflation-adjusted dollars. 

The rest of the 90s was a disaster. The Japanese failed on their first attempt, and the Americans botched their next two missions: The Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander. The polar lander famously failed because the engineers were using both metric and imperial units and didn’t convert them.

After these failures, things really turned around.

In 2001, the Mars Odyssey was launched to orbit the planet, and it is still there today functioning. In addition to observing the surface, it also serves as a communication relay for landers. 

The European Space Agency sent their Mars Express mission in 2003. The orbiter was successful, but their lander, known as Beagle 2, failed.  

In 2003 the Spirit and Opportunity rovers were launched, and these were probably the best performing space missions of any sort in history. Their original mission was only scheduled for 90 Martain days. However, Spirit lasted until 2011 and Opportunity lasted all the way until 2019!

Opportunity ended up driving over 45 kilometers on the surface of Mars, which is a record for any rover on any extraterrestrial surface. 

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was launched in 2005, and it too is still functioning today. 

2011 saw a failure of a joint Russian/Chinese mission, but the success of the American Curiosity Rover, which is still operating on the surface of Mars today. 

In 2013, India launched its first mission to Mars and it was successful. The Indian Mars Orbiter Mission is still functioning today. 

The 2010s ended with two more successful missions. The NASA MAVEN orbiter is analyzing Mars’ upper atmosphere, the joint Russian/European ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter.

The impetus for this episode was that 2020 saw another launch window, and several nations took advantage of it. The probes launched in 2020 have all been arriving at Mars in February 2021.

The United Arab Emirates sent their first space mission to Mars. Dubbed the Hope Orbiter, it successfully entered Martain orbit on February 9. 

NASA’s Perseverance lander just landed a few days ago as I record this. It is the first lander with both a video camera and a microphone. It also has a small helicopter drone with it as well which will be the first object to fly in an extraterrestrial atmosphere. 

Finally, the Chinese Tianwen-1 just entered Martain orbit a few days ago. It is currently checking out the surface and it is scheduled to attempt a landing with a rover in a few weeks. 

This is a very exciting time for Mars exploration right now. As I speak, there are currently 8 working satellites in orbit around Mars and 2 functioning landers, with a possible third in just a few days. 

You’ll have noticed that there hasn’t been a failed mission in a decade, with more countries joining the ranks of Mars explorers. We are getting better at this. 

The next launch window will appear in 2022. The European Space Agency and Russia will jointly be sending a mission that will land the Rosalind Franklin rover, which will be equipped to check for signs of life. 

India is planning on sending another orbiter and possibly a rover in 2024. 

There are a whole bunch of proposals for other missions, but nothing has been firmly schedule beyond 2024. 

The real goal, however, is to send humans to Mars. That is still a long way off, but it has pretty much been the assumed next big step ever since humans landed on the moon 50 years ago. 

Right now, all of the robotic Mars missions are gathering data and paving the way for a future mission with humans. We still have problems to figure out, like how long would it take, how do we get them back, and how long do they stay on Mars. 

Over the next several months we should be getting a steady stream of images, videos, and sound from the surface of Mars, and over the next few years, we should be seeing even more ambitious missions to the Red Planet. 

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Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is James Mackala. 

The associate producer is Thor Thomsen.

Today’s five-star reviews come from Apple Podcasts in the United Kingdom. Listener Fawley_Remmie writes:

I look forward to each new episode

The range of topics is huge and frequently touches upon areas of my interest as well as engaging me in areas I’ve never given thought to. My 13 year old son constantly gets comments like “you really must listen to this one”! Keep up the great work…there’s nothing else out there like this.

Thank you very much Fawley_Remmie, and also a big thanks to your son. I hope he finds some of the episodes a starting point to learning more about some of the subjects I cover.