To all the Martians and Martianettes, be you undiscovered microbes deep within the planet or trolling intelligent beings playing a long practical joke on us humans, we feel it’s time for us to address a few things.
As you may have noticed, the robot apocalypse has occurred on your planet (if Netflix is covered in Valles Marineris, you might want to watch The Terminator to know what I’m talking about). Oh, don’t you worry, they’re harmless, friendly, taxpayer-funded, government-approved robots. Nevertheless, they’re taking over your planet, awaiting our inevitable arrival.
You might be confused about what they’re doing here on Mars at the moment and if you should really care, but the reality is that more will come to your planet, thanks to what happened earlier this year on April 8, 2016. A brilliant Terran named Elon Musk, who undoubtedly you’ll hear more about on your lovely Red Planet moving forward, has succeeded in landing a reusable rocket on a drone ship in the ocean (Up yours, Bezos!) after launching a payload into space.
Let’s take a step back for second and let it sink in, coupled with a few nice gifs and videos of the landing.
Observe the Falcon 9 smooth landing from April 9.
No, it wasn't luck, since so far, SpaceX landed 2 rockets after this, with the third one happening a few days ago! The video below from SpaceX is of the May 9 Falcon 9 first stage landing after sending JCSAT-14 satellite on to Geostationary Transfer Orbit.
You’re probably asking yourself now, “What does this have to do with me, Earth?” Well, to answer your question in the simplest way possible, the success of reusable rockets means that there will be a lot more probes and robots visiting your wonderful Red Planet in the near future, with us humans coming eventually to settle down and see what’s up.
Don’t panic, dear Martians. I’ve taken the liberty of helping you ease into the transition that is to come. We on Earth felt it would be important for you to get accustomed to your new metal buddies, those on the grounds and those orbiting you. Think of them as having your own pets, except that they listen to us.
With that, I’d like to present you here with a guide to introduce you to your visitors. Be nice, get along, and we will all do just fine. We hope you enjoy “The Martian Guide to Terran Visitors”, a guide that's been written for our local residents to care more about the missions to your Red Planet (to any of my fellow humans who are reading this post, consider this guide to help you remember all the probes and robots that were sent to Mars).
Table of Contents
- Interactive Timeline of Current Mars Missions
- Flybys and Orbiters of Mars (Past and Present)
- Landers and Rovers of Mars (Past and Present)
- Interactive Timeline of Future Mars Missions
- Future Orbiters of Mars
- Future Landers and Rovers of Mars
Current Residents of Mars
Interactive Timeline of Current Mars Missions
I've taken the liberty of creating a timeline of all the current successful missions to Mars, starting with the Mariner 4. That way, you can scroll your way through what interests you from the missions.
A probe intended for planetary exploration in a flyby mode. It performed the first successful flyby of the planet Mars, returning the first pictures of the Martian surface.Read more November 28, 1964
Mariner 6 and 7
The twin probes completed the first dual mission to Mars in 1969. The craft flew over the equator and south polar regions, analyzing the atmosphere and the surface with remote sensors, and recording and relaying hundreds of picturesRead more February 24 and March 29, 1969
Was designed to continue the atmospheric studies begun by Mariner 6 and 7, and to map over 70% of the Martian surface from the lowest altitude and at the highest resolutions of any Mars mission up to that point.Read more May 30, 1971
Viking 1 and 2
Viking 1 was the first spacecraft to successfully land on Mars and perform its mission, and had a Mars surface mission of 2307 days or 2245 sols. Viking 2 launched later on, and had a similar mission design to its twin.Read more August 20 and September 20, 1975
Mars Global Surveyor
Robotic spacecraft developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory with a global mapping mission that examined the entire planet, from the ionosphere down through the atmosphere to the surface.Read more November 7, 1996
Pathfinder and Sojourner
An American robotic spacecraft that landed a base station (Pathfinder) and the roving probe (Sojourner), which became the first rover to operate outside the Earth-Moon system.Read more December 4, 1996
A robotic spacecraft orbiting the planet Mars developed by NASA. Its mission is to use spectrometers and a thermal imager to detect evidence of past or present water and ice.Read more April 7, 2001
A space exploration mission being conducted by the European Space Agency (ESA). The Mars Express mission is exploring the planet Mars, and is the first planetary mission attempted by the agency.Read more June 2, 2003
Spirit and Opportunity
Spirit and Opportunity, also known as MER (Mars Exploration Rover) A and B, respectively, are twin robotic rovers that landed on opposite sides of Mars.Read more June 10 and July 7, 2003
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is a multipurpose spacecraft designed to conduct reconnaissance and exploration of Mars from orbit.Read more August 12, 2005
A robotic spacecraft with instruments aboard to search for environments suitable for microbial life on Mars, and to research the history of water there.Read more August 4, 2007
A car-sized robotic rover exploring Gale Crater on Mars as part of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission (MSL), and the most famous rover on Mars.Read more November 26, 2011
Also called the Mars Orbiter Mission, the Mangalyaan is a space probe orbiting Mars, launched by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), being India’s first interplanetary mission.Read more November 5, 2013
Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN Mission is a space probe developed by NASA designed to study the Martian atmosphere while orbiting Mars. Mission goals include determining how the planet's atmosphere and water, presumed to have once been substantial, were lost over time.Read more November 18, 2013
Flybys and Orbiters of Mars (Past and Present)
I don’t think there can be any spacecraft as important as the Mariner 4 in terms of how it shifted our idea of what Mars was. Sure, you can argue that in terms of the timeline, it was the first successful mission to Mars, but it goes way beyond that. Mariner 4 was the first in terms of everything. First successful flyby mission of Mars, first images captured and returned back to Earth of another planet in deep space, and especially the first mission that shifted the scientific communities’ view of the Red Planet and the idea of Life on Mars.
If Mars was a super attractive, hard-to-get celebrity, Mariner 4 was the first to get in bed with Mars and tell the world about it, shifting the rumors from what we initially speculated to what it’s actually like. In fact, if you are a fan of novels about social and hard science fiction like me, you’d notice a huge trend in Mars depiction in fiction based on the pre-Mariner 4 days and the post Mariner 4 days. This is largely due to science fiction authors and the scientific community believing there might be civilizations and life on Mars before Mariner 4 flew by the Red Planet. We imagined Mars as a birthplace of aliens who will one day conquer us.
Mariner 4 basically told us, “Look you silly children, there’s nothing over here, got that? Nada! No aliens, no signs of water, just red dust, damn it! Thanks for sending me all this way for nothing.” But no, this wasn’t the end, this was the beginning of something way more exciting! More explorations of the Red Planet were being planned thanks to Mariner 4, and the depiction of Mars in popular culture shifted towards it being a place for humanity to inhabit in the future. What exciting times it must have been.
Mariner 4 launched on November 28, 1964 out of Cape Canaveral at a time when Mariner 3 had a payload failure and stakes were high. It had a lot of cool instruments aboard, such as a Helium Magnetometer (use to measure the magnitude and other characteristics of the interplanetary and planetary magnetic fields) and a cosmic dust detector (used to measure the momentum, distribution, density, and direction of cosmic dust).
But what was like super cool about the Mariner 4 was that it was the first spacecraft to navigate using the stars, like ancient mariners that sailed the seas (pardon my nerdgasm). The spacecraft went further than any other human-made object at the time, and used the bright star Canopus as a reference. Once its star sensor found Canopus, gas jets on the spacecraft kept the vehicle locked in the correct orientation for the trip to the Red Planet.
Mariner 4 had an on-board tape recorder used to store the images it took of Mars. The closest approach it had to Mars was at 9,846 km from the Martian surface. Each photo was sent twice back to Earth to ensure there was no data corruption. All other equipments performed the required mission research and transmitted the data back successfully to Earth, resulting in what we call a successful mission. The crazy thing about all that data returned was that it was all in total about 5.2 million bits (about 634 kB), which is too small to make a GIF.
Mariner 6 and 7
The importance of Mariner 6 and 7 was due to the fact that the data sent back by Mariner 4 helped pave way for future explorations and discoveries. Mariner 6 and 7 were twin spacecraft probes that launched 3 weeks apart and were sent to Mars to study more of the surface in a flyby mission.
We can think of Mariner 6 and 7 as the baby bros of Mariner 4, coming in to help out when Mariner 4 brought all that data back. “Alrighty, Mariner 4, you did all the heavy lifting, we know what needs to be done, let us take over. You earned yourself a beer.”
Mariner 6 and 7 are identical in their designs, sporting IR and UV Spectrometers and a Mars TV Camera. Mariner 6 launched almost a month before Mariner 7, on February 24, 1969, while Mariner 7 launched on March 27, 1969. The benefits of having Mariner 6 launched first and reach Mars before Mariner 7 was due to the fact that it could scope out the planet and identify areas of interest that Mariner 7 can be programmed to go explore while Mariner 6 did it’s own thing. Twins, indeed! It feels like a perfect tag team, a bit of, “You check out this area, I’ll check out this area.”
One of the minor hiccups of the mission was JPL’s loss of contact with Mariner 7 about a week before its closest approach to Mars, which was due to a battery leak. A backup antenna was used to restore communication, and Mariner 7 was programmed to explore areas of interest from the data sent by Mariner 6. Despite the battery failure, Mariner 7 returned more pictures than Mariner 6. Talk about sibling rivalry.
What is interesting, however, was how the twin flybys completely missed Tharsis and the giant northern volcanoes (including where Olympus Mons was) as well as Valles Marineris that were discovered lated. Mariner 6 and 7 did however photograph 20 percent of the Martian surface and studied the atmosphere, adding more data than Mariner 4 did.
Ah, Mariner 9. If the Mariner program was a family, and the Mariner 4 being the first child who accomplished a great deal, the Mariner 6 and 7 twins being the supportive middle children who pushed the grounds of their older sibling and generated more supportive data to help further explorations, then Mariner 9 is baby overachiever. What Mariner 9 did for Mars exploration was ensure the Mariner legacy was remembered for years to come.
Let’s go over how Mariner 9 is different than her older siblings. First off, Mariner 9 is an Orbiter Mission. That means that it orbited the Martian atmosphere repeatedly to study it, compared to other Mariners being flyby missions that took a sneak peek of the surface.
Second, baby sis Mariner 9 was the first spacecraft to ever orbit another planet, narrowly beating the Soviet Union’s Mars 2 and 3 which arrived during the same month. Take that, Moscow! It’s crazy how time flies. NOTE: I wanted to write about Mars 2 and Mars 3 missions within the timeline, but I have filtered my timeline to strictly successful missions. While Mars 2 and 3 did orbit Mars, their mission was considered a partial success because they couldn’t map the planet, which was part of the mission design, thereby I chose not to include them.
Mariner 9 had this crazy goal of mapping 70% of the Martian surface, picking up on the data that Mariner 6 and 7 had to continue exploration. To top it off, Mariner 9 used super high resolutions for that time period. Cool scientific instruments included an IR Radiometer which was used to detect heat sources for volcanic activities.
When Mariner 9 arrived on Mars, a huge dust storm was underway, obscuring the camera from observing the surface, causing NASA to delay to image capturing by a few months until the dust storm settled. The dust storm was an interesting opportunity in disguise. For one thing, it solidified the reasons for designing missions that would probe Mars from orbit rather than just complete a flyby since environmental factors can have negative effects on a flyby mission.
Another factor was the importance of flexible mission software that can adapt to different scenarios. The main reason the Soviet Union’s Mars 2 and 3 missions was not considered a success was because they couldn’t adapt their mission to the dust storm on Mars and had to take pictures anyway.
Mariner 9 transmitted more than 7000 images, covering 85% of the planet while previous missions transmitted a tiny fraction of that number covering a tinier area. Mariner 9 was responsible for the discovery of Olympus Mons in the Tharsis Bulge, Valles Marineris (which was named after Mariner 9 due to its accomplishment in the discovery). Phobos and Deimos, Mars’ two moons, were also analyzed. The findings of Mariner 9 were instrumental in the underpinning of the Viking Program to come.
Mars Global Surveyor
At the time, Mars Global Surveyor’s mission was kinda ambitious. Developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California with Caltech (Hi Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, and Raj!), Mars Global Surveyor was designed to learn everything there was about Mars. It needed to know it all about the planet, from the ionosphere to the atmosphere to the surface. In other words, MGS was the Martian version of the NSA (Just kidding, NSA...).
Among its many objectives, it needed to characterize geological processes on Mars, determine the global topography, planet shape and gravitational field. Other things it contributed to was finding possible landing sites for future spacecrafts like Opportunity and the Curiosity.
In its mapping activities performed, the MGS circled Mars once every 117.65 minutes, fully covering and analyzing the surface of Mars every time. It has continued doing so in such clockwork perfection, resulting in an entire mapping of the entire planet, resulting in great topographic map like the one shown below.
In the above map, we can note that the blue area is the northern part of Mars, known as the Vastitas Borealis, is of a much lower elevation spanning 40% of the planet. It is most likely the place of an ocean at one point in Martian history. Speaking of water, one of the final contributions of the MGS was its help in uncovering the question of existence of water on Mars by the photos it took of Terra Sirenum and Centauri Montes, which show potential water flow at some point in time between 1999 and 2001.
Odyssey, which launched in 2001, famously named for 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke (If you don’t what the hell I’m talking about, do yourself a favor, stop reading this post, go read the book, and then watch the film right after, which was directed by none other than Stanley Kubrick. Why are you still here? Seriously, I won’t mind if you close this tab and go read 2001: A Space Odyssey. Still here? Oh well, you’re missing out).
It was developed by NASA and contracted to none other than
Military-Industrial-Complex Lockheed Martin, with the mission designed to use spectrometers and a thermal imager to detect evidence of water, whether back in Martian history or currently in the present time.
Odyssey is still currently operational, holding the record for longest continuously functioning spacecraft orbiting a planet other than Earth. Odyssey also became a communications relay for all the surface explorers on Mars, where transmission from them reached Earth via help from Odyssey. Other things that Odyssey contributed to was the mapping the distribution of ice water in the surface, which was confirmed later on by the Phoenix lander.
Finally some European action over here! Jesus, as much as I love NASA, repeatedly talking about "JPL this, Caltech that" was getting tiresome. On to the ESA and their beloved Mars Express…
Mars Express was a mission consisting of an orbiter and a Rover. The rover, called the Beagle, failed to deploy after landing, so there goes a lot of money down the drain. The orbiter, however, proved to be super great at mapping the entire surface of the planet since early 2004, especially high resolution images and mineralogical mapping of the surface among other things.
To give the Europeans credit, Mars Express is the second longest operating spacecraft on Mars, right after the Odyssey. In terms of important discoveries, Mars Express has many that it contributed to science, Chief among them was the discovery of water ice on the Solar Polar ice caps, and the discovery of small amounts of methane in the atmosphere, which excited scientists as if they were young teenage girls on their prom night, questioning the source of the methane as it could be from microbial life.
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
When the MRO showed up to the robot party that was on Mars, it broke the record for the largest amount of operating spacecrafts on Mars (Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Express, Mars Odyssey, Opportunity and Spirit) at a total of six spacecrafts. If there ever was a large transcendance of machine consciousness and the robots decided to take over, they would have been in the worst place to plan their apocalypse, for unless they discovered Martians to occupy, there was practically no one. Moving on to the MRO…
We have a JPL overseen orbiter that would conduct reconnaissance and exploration of Mars from orbit, paving the way for future spacecrafts by monitoring weather and surface conditions on the Red Planet. It also packed a more advanced telecommunications system, which would be able to transfer more data back to Earth than all the previous missions combined. Let’s just hope we can get cell reception from MRO when we arrive.
MRO played a role of mapping the entire planet in high resolution (you gotta respect how much scientists love to map a planet) to choose a landing site for future spacecraft missions such as the Phoenix lander. Furthermore, its monitoring capabilities were used to search for signs of liquid water in the polar caps and underground. In fact, one of the many accomplishments of the MRO was the measurement of the water ice cap in the north pole, which equaled 30% of the Greenland ice sheet. MRO is the reason we have strong evidence for liquid water flowing on Mars, which is super important, since it would mean many strong possibilities for life deep inside the Red Planet.
Landers and Rovers of Mars (Past and Present)
Viking 1 and 2
Viking 1 set an important milestone in Mars Exploration. An orbiter and lander duo, Viking 1 was the first launch of the Viking Program, being followed a month later by the Viking 2 launch. By the way, I love saying Viking a lot. Viking!
Kidding aside, before we even talk about the lander, let’s first read up on the resume of the orbiter. It had a few goodies on board, including an IR spectrometer for water vapor mapping and infrared radiometers for thermal mapping. Furthermore, it also studied Phobos on close approaches and had its mission extended after the solar conjunction (when Earth is on one side of the Sun and Mars is on the other, being separated by 180 degrees, for all of you anti-Googlers). One would say that Viking 1 orbiter provided a lot of data to scientists. After all, that’s what excites us STEMers, data!
But that wasn’t enough for the Viking 1. The lander needed to shine as well. And what a moment it was! Imagine this back then. No spacecraft has ever landed successfully on Mars before then (not counting Mars 2 and 3 from the Soviet Union, whose landing wasn't succesful). Nada, zilch, zero . We have been orbiting Mars for a while, but we never went down to investigate and land successfully. The Viking 1 lander was the first Mars spacecraft to land on Mars, and the first one attempted by the United States on the first try!
Now, as you might have suspected, obviously the Viking 1 Lander was packing lots of toys. I mean, it would be costly to send a lander to Mars and not have it measure anything. The genius in the design was the fact that when Viking 1 Lander landed, it couldn’t mess up the surface it landed in, especially heat up or move anything. So, the retrograde rockets used an 18 nozzle design that spread the hydrogen and nitrogen over a larger area as to not mess with the surface.
What was cool about Viking 1 was the images it transmitted, both in black and white and in color, of the Red Planet.
Or this beautiful color picture:
I can’t even imagine how exciting it must have been in Ground Control at NASA when they first saw these pictures. I’d have been jumping up and down and screaming when I first saw these pictures back then. Mars! The first pieces of evidence that the Red Planet we see in the sky is not a figment of our imagination or a hologram being rendered by mice from another galaxy, but an actual physical place with rocks and all. It must have been great to touch and work on some spacecraft that would then land on Mars. Almost Godly, this feeling, I’d like to imagine.
To top it all off, Viking 1 also had two major research experiments to conduct: Soil Analysis and Search for Extraterrestial Life. Damn it, Viking 1, you really are aiming for the gold! The soil tests showed an abundance of silicon and iron, along with large amounts of calcium, magnesium, and sulfur, and aluminum.
On the Search for Life experiment, Viking 1 had a biological experiment which had three subsystems that would test for organic compounds, as well as another module for testing. Results of the test were interesting in that all but one subsystem came back negative. This caused a debate among scientists, with many thinking it’s a false positive, while others thinking that life does exist in the soil. The discovery of evidence for water has recently added more weight to the few scientists who belief life does exist as a result of the Viking 1 experiment, but only time can tell.
Viking 2 was very similar to Viking 1 in the design and the mission, with the orbiter actually studying Deimos on close approach instead of Phobos. It is worth noting that the Viking 2 was the second landing on Mars and brought back the same results for the Search for Life experiment, which had caused a major controversy in the scientific community until Phoenix lander discovered perchlorate in 2008. Talk about some outer-space drama!
But, really, Viking 2, which landed in Utopia Planitia, as opposed to Viking 1’s Chryse Planitia landing, took some stunning photographs of the region.
Mars Pathfinder and Sojourner
Pathfinder was launched during a very interesting time at NASA. Carried aboard a Delta II booster exactly one month after Mars Global Surveyor launched, this lander had one extra gift for Mars and one for the history books: Sojourner, the first Martian Rover.
Developed at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena (these guys sure do build lots of Martian spacecrafts, don’t they?), it was designed as a proof of concept of sorts, a benchmark if you will. It was part of the new initiative being taken at NASA of “cheaper, faster, better”, which sounds like a Kanye West remix. The initiative was to build spacecrafts within three years and within a budget of $150 million, and Pathfinder and Sojourner were going to be the test of that.
So in other words, back at the time, NASA was going through a phase where they needed to be cost efficient, kinda like a startup finding a better way to operate against the competition, which was itself.
Pathfinder and Sojourner packed a lot of interesting gadgets, being used mostly to study the rocks and soil, being able to investigate the geology of the Martian surface from just a few millimeters to hundreds of meters away, among other things.
What I think was super cool about the mission, apart from having the first Martian rover operating on another planet and moving around, was the landing technique. Pathfinder’s landing looks crazy, like an April Fool prank by NASA, but it’s super legitimate. Pathfinder employed airbags that inflated before impact to cushion the landing. It’s very difficult to describe how cool it is without a video, so here you go:
I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for the project lead to get the approval of this landing system from their superiors at NASA. Imagine their faces when it was gone over the first time. Someone should have taken a picture! Needless to say, this landing technique was at a different level of cool, surpassed later on by none other than Curiosity Rover.
Spirit and Opportunity
The twins Spirit and Opportunity were a large opportunity in disguise. Designed to not last more than three months, they outlived everyone’s expectations. Spirit, which landed on January 4, 2004, ended its mission on March 22, 2010. Opportunity, on the other hand, is still operational to this date!
There’s a lot that I can tell you about what those two rovers, but the biggest contribution they made, in my humble opinion, is all that data and tests and experience they brought back to the NASA team on the ground which allowed them to build better rovers for the future (Shoutout to Curiosity!).
Let’s go over what are some of the discoveries and accomplishments those two lil’ rascals made, which I decided was best made in a slideshow:
The Phoenix lander represented an interesting collaboration between agencies and countries and universities for the whole mission. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Another lander? We have the ability to build rovers now, damn it! How’s science gonna keep winning with a lander!?” Well, trust me, the reasons for it are very good, which will be explained later here.
Phoenix was a mission under the Mars Scout Program, headed by University of Arizona with direction from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (hire me, please!). It was a collaboration between NASA, the Canadian Space Agency (All Hail the Great White North!), the Finnish Meteorological Institute, Lockheed Martin, and MacDonald Dettwiler & Associates (thanks for rejecting my job application, MDA). Phoenix was NASA’s six successful landing out of seven attempts, which was another win for NASA.
What’s important about Phoenix was what it was going to study and analyze. It first had to study the geologic history of water, which helps scientists understand the past climate change that occurred on Mars. Secondly, it had to evaluate past and potential planetary habitability in the ice-soil boundary. If you are not sure what planetary habitability means and think I’m just being a smartass here, I’m basically talking about a measure of a planet’s ability to be hospitable to life. The whole mission was to take 92 Earth days, but like all other spacecrafts, it exceeded expectations by two extra months, before the cold winter messed up Phoenix (which is kinda ironic for a lander named Phoenix).
Now, to go over why the hell did we have a lander and not a rover, the reasons are basically cost, mostly. Adding motors and wheels would increase cost of the spacecraft, and by reusing earlier equipment instead, total mission cost, including the launch, were about $386 million dollars. Another reason why they didn’t opt for a rover was because the landing site of Phoenix was pretty uniform, so travelling around would have not been as important, which is another way for scientists and engineers to say, “Yay, a valid excuse not to build a rover system!”. I kid the University of Phoenix engineers. I think the most valid reason for doing a lander instead of a rover, however, was for having more room for payload and scientific instruments, which I think is the most important of all those reasons.
One of the main cool things about the Phoenix lander is the Phoenix DVD, which was compiled by the Planetary Society (not trying to be one of those people, but if you’re really into space exploration and the deep questions about life, which I assume you are, cause otherwise, why the hell would you read through 5k+ word article I’ve written here about spacecrafts exploring Mars, then you should really check them out and see if you’d like to become a member. With Carl Sagan as a cofounder and Bill Nye as the CEO, you won’t find a better way to express your Space Nerdiness). The disc contains what is called Visions of Mars, multimedia collection of literature and art about Mars (which I’d like to explore at some point in this blog). Works include H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (definitely a classic, but not my favorite), Percival Lowell’s Mars as the Abode of Life (including a map of his canals), Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, as well as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Mars (if you’d like to read my non-spoiler review of the first book in the series, Red Mars, you might enjoy it). The aim of the DVD was to design the “first library on Mars”. I just wonder what late fees are for this library.
Ah, yes, the Curiosity, aka the celebrity spacecraft from all the others built by NASA. Curiosity is freaking awesome though, designed to the size of a car (compared to all the smaller sized rovers) and has the ability to take selfies (or as NASA likes to call them: self-portraits). Curiosity’s mission is investigating Martian climate and geology, and assessing its landing site of the Gale Crater and whether it has ever offered favorable environmental conditions for microbial life. Furthermore, it would do further planetary habitability studies in preparation for future human exploration.
Curiosity’s power source is a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, aka nuclear power, baby! This was also found on Viking 1 and 2 design. Using nuclear power allows a generation of 2.5 Kilowatt-Hours daily, compared to the solar panels on the Spirit and Opportunity rover, which can only generate 0.58 Kilowatt-Hours (pshhh). This is needed if we consider all those crazy ass scientific instruments that the Curiosity is packing, including 17 (17!!!!) cameras, its robotic arm (which holds up to five devices for exploring), a Laser Zapper (or as it is scientifically called, the ChemCam), and a Dust Removal Tool among many things.
What was the most interesting thing about Curiosity was its landing mechanism, dubbed by NASA as the Seven Minutes of Terror because of how unique it was for a rover the size of a care and because of the delays in communication between Curiosity and Ground Control. Check out this video for an overview of the landing.
Curiosity is very important not only as a scientific instrument of great advancements for the exploration of Mars, but also as a cultural icon that made NASA the darling of Internet, and inspired a lot more people to join the STEM field. Curiosity, we love you.
How awesome is India, by the way? Not only is the Mangalyaan the first interplanetary mission for the country, but it was successful on first attempt (first nation in the world that’s successful in reaching another planet in its first attempt)! India became the fourth space agency to reach Mars, after the Soviet Union, NASA, and the ESA, to reach Mars. Needless to say, the Indians ain’t fucking around. Mangalyaan is sanskrit for Marscraft, which is a super cool name for a video game, to be honest. Marscraft!
The purpose of the mission was to demonstrate the technology and test it out for an interplanetary mission and learn from the results. It carries five instruments aboard to help it in its analysis of Mars. What was cool about the timing of the launch was that during that time, the U.S. was experiencing a federal government shutdown. Yet, NASA still reaffirmed to ISRO that they don’t really give a fuck about government politics and still provided all the support that ISRO needed with its launch. Now that’s the true symbol of scientific democracy and contribution! If only politicians can behave like scientists. After the success of the launch and mission still being operational, about a year later, NASA and ISRO signed a partnership agreement to work on future joint missions to Mars.
In terms of cost efficiency, the Mangalyaan mission cost $73 million, making it the least expensive Mars mission yet (cheaper than the movie Gravity, even). I wonder how further reduced the costs would have been had they contracted SpaceX for help with the launch. Mangalyaan had a lot of scientific instruments used to study Martian atmosphere, but the most important one was the studying the methane composition (if you’ve been paying attention so far, methane in the environment is usually an indicator for microbial life).
Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN Mission is a probe that was developed by NASA designed to answer just one important question: How the planet’s atmosphere and water, which is assumed to have been substantial, has been lost over time.
MAVEN might have not even launched during the time period it was scheduled to launch (around the same time as the Mangalyaan) due to the federal government shutdown. However, since the launch window is only once every 26 months, and the MAVEN mission was so important for further communications with the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, emergency funding was authorized to help continue launch (phew!).
Of the many things that MAVEN was discovering, it was announced on November 5, 2015 that the erosion of Martian atmosphere increases significantly during solar storms, which played a likely role in shifting the planet away from a carbon dioxide majority atmosphere. A carbon-dioxide majority atmosphere is what keeps the planet warm and helps maintain liquid water on the planet.
Future Visitors of Mars
Interactive Timeline of Future Mars Missions
ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter
A collaborative project between Europe’s ESA and Russia’s Roscosmos to send an atmosphere research orbiter and lander to Mars in 2016 as part of the ExoMars Programme.Read more March 14 2016
NASA developed robotic Mars lander manufactured in the 2010s which was originally planned for launch in March 2016, but launch was rescheduled for 5 May 2018.Read more May 5, 2018
Planned unmanned SpaceX Dragon capsule for low-cost Mars lander missions using Falcon Heavy rockets.Read more Summer 2018 Launch (Planned)
India's second interplanetary mission planned for launch by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in 2020.Read more 2020 (Planned)
Spacecraft orbiter in a planned 2020 unmanned mission to Mars by the United Arab Emirates to study the Martian atmosphere and climate.Read more 2020 (Planned)
a Mars rover mission by NASA's Mars Exploration Program with a planned launch in 2020, intended to investigate an astrobiologically relevant ancient environment on Mars.Read more 2020 (Planned)
A planned robotic Mars rover, part of the international ExoMars mission led by the European Space Agency. The plan calls for a Russian launch vehicle, an ESA carrier module and a Russian lander that will deploy the rover to Mars' surface.Read more 2020 (Planned)
2020 Chinese Mars Mission
A planned project by China to place a Mars orbiter, lander and rover on Mars. The mission is planned to be launched in 2020 with a Long March 5 heavy lift rocket.Read more 2020 (Planned)
Future Orbiters of Mars
ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter
ExoMars is a collaborative mission between ESA and the Russian Federal Space Agency, AKA Roscosmos (also, I like Roscosmos better, sounds badass with a pinch of Mother Russia). Originally, the collaboration would have been between ESA and NASA, but because of budget cuts by Obama in order to continue funding the James Webb Telescope.
Launched on March 14, 2016, it’s expected to arrive on Mars on October 19, 2016, so this will be an interesting mission to follow. The ExoMars mission consists of an orbiter called the Trace Gas Orbiter, which will act as telecommunications relay for future Mars missions. The scientific analysis it needs to conduct is mostly hydrogen detection on Mars surface that goes up to 1 meter deep beneath the surface, which will help in water-ice detection. This is useful for exploration in future crewed missions.
Aboard the Orbiter is the Schiaparelli demonstration lander, which will separate on October 19 upon orbital insertion in order to land on Mars. The Schiaparelli EDM (Not Electronic Dance Music, although it would have been cool), or the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module, which is used to test the lander technology in order to help with future missions. The sad thing about the Schiaparelli is the 8 day duration of the mission due to the non-rechargeable battery. It will however do lots of testings and measurements, sort of like an environmental station for the duration of the mission.
Since having one successful mission (did I mention on first attempt!?) wasn’t enough, the Indians went back to the drawing board to prepare the second mission. The Mangalayaan 2 will be an orbiter, but might also have a lander and a rover as well (fingers crossed). Noticing them from far away is the French, which signed a letter of intent that the Indian Space Research Organization and the Centre national d'études spatiales (CNES) would both build the Mangalayaan 2 by 2020. Since not a lot of information is given so far about the mission and the spacecraft, we will just have to wait and see. Who’s willing to bet they’re gonna get their second launch to be successful once again?
There’s that Arab Money that people have been talking about! I’m really happy with what the United Arab Emirates is doing with their Hope Mission. Very ambitious and the first Mars space mission for the country and their agency.
The mission consists of a probe called Hope that will be sent to orbit Mars and study the atmosphere and climate. It will be launched in 2020, and the mission is being directed in collaboration with University of Berkeley, Arizona State, and University of Colorado. The name Hope was chosen because "it sends a message of optimism to millions of young Arabs", according to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of the emirate of Dubai. I personally think it’s a smart investment by the country, considering how much else has been invested in the luxury experience in Dubai and elsewhere.
If you guys just want me to shut up for a bit and watch something to distract you, here’s an awesome video highlighting the Hope Mars Mission:
Future Landers and Rovers of Mars
InSight, a NASA lander, made the news recently when it missed its launch window due to a failure of one of its payload. It’s too bad, really, since it would have provided us with exciting data about Mars. InSight stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, which basically means that its mission objectives will be to study early Martian geological evolution.
Because of the March 2016 window being missed, and the 26 months in between launch windows (if you’d like to understand how we get to Mars, be sure to check out my blog post on the technology and the launch windows), the InSight Lander is scheduled to launch now in May 2018. An added $150 million was added to the mission because of this delay. In any case, it will be interesting to keep tabs on how InSight is doing later on as we approach the May 2018 launch date.
SpaceX, whoop whoop whoop! Finally some non-government missions, amirite? Red Dragon (which is such an awesome name for a mission) is an unmanned spacecraft scheduled to launch in 2018 using Falcon Heavy rockets.
Originally, SpaceX was planning on doing the launch as part of the proposal for funding via United States NASA Discovery mission #13 for launch in 2022, but they didn’t go forward with the submission. It probably has to do with the fact that SpaceX is too cool for school and can do it on their own, which I super admire. This will be a very important mission to watch out for, as that’s the moment SpaceX has been fighting so hard to reach. When Elon Musk started SpaceX, it was to get to Mars. For the 2018 launch, NASA (Ares bless those guys) will be providing technical support for the mission as part of a “no-exchange-of-funds” agreement, where in return, SpaceX provides data on Martian entry, descent, and landing data. See how awesome scientific collaboration can be?
I’ll be talking more about Red Dragon mission in future posts that will take a closer look at SpaceX and Elon Musk.
The Mars 2020 Rover mission by NASA will base most of its designs of Curiosity rover. It will carry a different payload however (since the Curiosity is awesome and can handle shit on its own) and its mission will be to investigate astrobiological ancient environment on Mars, its planetary habitability, and geological history.
The landing site for the rover will be the Jezereo crater. One cool technology it will test over there is creation of oxygen and carbon dioxide on the planet as a demonstration. It will also study any hazards posed by Martian red dust to help design a safer mission for future crew on the planet. An overview of the payload is shown in the following diagram.
According to Bill Nye and his reaction to the announcement of the mission, “We don't want to stop what we're doing on Mars because we're closer than ever to answering these questions: Was there life on Mars and stranger still, is there life there now in some extraordinary place that we haven't yet looked at? Mars was once very wet—it had oceans and lakes. Did life start on Mars and get flung into space and we are all descendants of Martian microbes? It's not crazy, and it's worth finding out. It's worth the cost of a cup of coffee per taxpayer every 10 years or 13 years to find out.”
The ExoMars Rover, when it arrives on Mars in 2020 (Is it me or is 2020 the year of Martian space launches?), it will link up with the ExoMars TraceGas Orbiter that acts as a telecommunications relay and awating it. What is super exciting about this mission is that it will a 6 month duration search for life on Mars, past or present (Go Europe and Russia!).
Chinese 2020 Mission
About time, China. Where have you been hiding all this time? Needless to say, the Chinese, after getting a royal fuck-you over a crash in their Yinghuo-1 mission by the Russians, decided to make their own Mars mission. This will be a demonstration mission to study the feasibility of a sample return mission from Mars for the 2030s.
China is a very interesting player in the game. They were claiming back in 2002, before they did anything in space, that they'll beat the U.S. in sending a man to Mars (I know, right?). With many of the missions to Mars a failure, and the fact that India beat their ass to Mars for a cool $75 million made the Chinese say they "would do it better". I mean, there's a lot of claims by China, and they certainly can get to Mars if they want to, but I'm not entirely sure about the timeline. We will just have to wait and see with the mission.
This guide might have seemed pretty extensive in its coverage of the Martian rovers and orbiters that humanity has designed and launched towards the Red Planet. The reality is, however, this is just the beginning. I can feel you sighing and muttering to yourself that this sounds like a cliche, that what I said can be applied about anything happening in the future. The truth however is this: it's very costly to launch spacecrafts into outer space. We are standing at the brink of a very interesting time, where companies like SpaceX are cutting down the costs of travel to outer space.
For an understanding of how we even get to Mars, be sure to check out my article on rocket science. In this post, I've outlined all the successful Martian missions and those being worked upon by various agencies for the future launches. Since I already taked about the missions, what I'd like to talk about in future posts is the various players and agencies and their agendas and goals. It's only by understanding who the players are and why they want to get to Mars do we really know if they can make it. What we are slowly witnessing now is a steady rise of a new Space Race, a large dragon slowly being awoken before it spreads its wings and soars to the red heavens.
Part V of The Martian Sex Journal
From the perspective of the dreamers of Mars, if we can’t even colonize the Red Planet, then this whole experiment is jeopardized. If humans can’t inhabit the cosmos, then we are literally stuck to Earth and its problems and warfare.
Part IV of The Martian Sex Journal
This is where the irony of living on Mars with the dreams of terraforming it lies in the eyes of this tourist Martian visiting and experiencing Earth for the first time. The Martian’s forefathers left this very planet to settle and colonize Mars and terraform it be like Earth, even though they left Earth because they didn’t want to live there to begin with.
Part III of The Martian Sex Journal
To a baby growing up, this is a shocking new way of viewing the world, especially when the people raising the baby use Earth as a reference point. Everything is sacred, everything is sustainable, everyone working towards a common goal.
Part II of The Martian Sex Journal
The topic of sex and procreation in lower- and micro-gravity and giving birth to a child has become an important topic in life sciences. Being able to successfully live in those conditions and give birth to healthy babies that will be second-generation colonists capable of carrying the torch is the most essential task of going out and venturing into the final frontier.
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