Named after the Roman war god, Mars, the fourth planet from the Sun in our Solar System has captured the imaginations of people for many centuries now. Standing out among the other planets due to its red appearance, Mars is often referred to as the Red Planet. The red shades of the planet were later found to be due to the presence of iron oxide on the Martian surface. Mars is deemed the most likely planet to sustain life, apart from Earth. While Mercury and Venus are very close to the Sun and hence very hot, the planets beyond Jupiter may be too acidic or too cold to sustain human life.
Mars is at an equitable distance of 141.6 million miles (1.524 AU) from the Sun. The seasonal cycles of the Red Planet are similar to those of our home planet. The rotation cycle of Mars takes 24 hours 39 minutes and 35 seconds, about the same as Earth's rotation. Mars currently has an axial tilt of about 25° and the Earth of 23.4°. This tilt is responsible for seasonal variation. The terrain of Mars – the craters, deserts, and valleys - and the polar ice is reminiscent of Earth. Above all, the likelihood of the presence of water makes Mars the most likely to sustain any form of life or to sustain human colonization.
Though Venus is closer to Earth (26 million miles) than Mars (35 million miles), solar radiation makes it impossible to approach this neighbor. A mission to Mars opens up immense opportunities to study the interplanetary space, the Solar System, and an altogether different ecology. Mars missions are the next step in manned space travel after landing on the Moon. Mars has been the subject matter of much study and many space missions is that because of the immense exploration potential offered by the planet.
History of Mars Missions
The first successful landing on Mars was USSR’s Mars 3 lander in May 1971. Later that year NASA placed Mariner 9 on the orbit of Mars successfully to relay high-resolution images of the riverbed-like channels on the planet’s surface and of the Mars moons. Following the success of Mars Global Surveyor in 1996, NASA soon sent its first wheeled vehicle to Mars on the Pathfinder Mission. In 2004, Spirit, one of the two rovers from the Mars Exploration Rover Mission found that the soil was rich in sulfates, thereby suggesting that Mars may have sustained life. The other rover, Opportunity, sent back pictures of a gypsum vein which has led scientists to believe that there could have been water on Mars.
|Mission||Country||Type||Mission Launch||Mission Ended||Status|
|Mars 1||USSR||Flyby||1-Nov-62||21-Mar-63||Data Partially Collected - Contact Lost|
|Lander||27-Nov-71||Crashed on Mars|
|Mars 5||USSR||Orbiter||25-Jul-73||21-Feb-74||Partial success|
|Mars 6||USSR||Lander||5-Aug-73||12-Mar-74||Data Partially Collected - Contact Lost|
|Phobos 1||USSR||Orbiter||7-Jul-88||2-Sep-88||Data Partially Collected - Contact Lost|
|Phobos 2||USSR||Orbiter||12-Jul-88||27-Mar-89||Data Partially Collected - Contact Lost|
|Mars Observer||USA||Orbiter||25-Sep-92||21-Aug-93||Data Partially Collected - Contact Lost|
|Mars Global Surveyor||USA||Orbiter||7-Nov-96||5-Nov-06||Success|
|Mars Pathfinder||USA||Lander, rover||4-Dec-96||27-Sep-97||Success|
|2001 Mars Odyssey||USA||Orbiter||7-Apr-01||Operational||Operational, Success|
|Mars Express||ESA (International)||Orbiter||2-Jun-03||Operational||Operational, Success|
|MER-B Opportunity||USA||Rover||7-Jul-03||Operational||Operational, Success|
|Rosetta||ESA (International)||Gravity Assist||2-Mar-04||Operational||Operational, Success|
|Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter||USA||Orbiter||12-Aug-05||Operational||Operational, Success|
|Dawn||USA||Gravity Assist||27-Sep-07||Operational||Operational, Success|
|MSL Curiosity||USA||Rover||26-Nov-11||Operational||Operational, Success|
The latest and perhaps most successful mission to Mars is the robotic space probe, Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). On August 6, 2012 at 1:32 EDT, MSL successfully landed a rover, Curiosity in Gale Crater on the surface of Mars. Costing about $2.6 billion, Curiosity is the most advanced Mars rover built by NASA and executed a very complicated landing to begin a two-year exploration mission of the Red Planet. Besides evaluating the conditions sustaining life, Curiosity will also study the atmosphere and soil of Mars. The rover carries about 10 highly advanced scientific instruments.
On landing, Curiosity transmitted some panoramic 3D images of the Martian surface. Over 3.2 million viewers watched the rover’s descent via live streaming on the Internet. Curiosity’s landing has made scientists confident of landing a 2000 pound car on the Martian surface. On August 13, 2012, NASA announced that Curiosity would be receiving a software upgrade to ensure smooth continuation of Mars surface operations. Curiosity also became a Social Media success. The rover’s official Twitter account, @MarsCuriosity was followed by 971,000 Twitter users. Keeping up a healthy level of humor, Curiosity’s Twitter feed also served to provide instant live updates about the landing. The photo uploads, announcements, and interactions from the account were handled by three NASA employees.
Planned Missions To Mars
Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) is the next major mission planned to Mars. MAVEN, operated by NASA, is an exploration mission to send out an orbit which shall study the Martian atmosphere. The launch is scheduled in November-December 2013. India plans to launch the Indian Mars Probe orbiter in November 2013, also to research the Mars atmosphere. The European Space Agency (ESA) and Russian Federal Space Agency are also working on a collaborative launch of a static lander and rover to Mars in 2016. Later, in 2018, ESA plans to independently send the ExoMars rover.
The Mars Challenge
Apart from the images sent by Spirit and Opportunity, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter images of Mars seem to suggest the existence of possible liquid flow in the equatorial region. Rover Phoenix also confirms the presence of water on the planet not very long ago. Despite such reassurances scientists and astronauts face a number of challenges in planning a manned mission to Mars.
The terrain of Mars is, from what we can see, dry and the atmosphere very cold. Despite being the nearest planet to Earth, Martian atmosphere could be very toxic to human beings. NASA has also been working to estimate the space radiation between Earth and Mars in an attempt to gauge our chances of landing a human being on Mars. The toxicity of the planet is calculated in terms of the carcinogenic effects that such a mission may have. While most scientists would prefer to wait for reports from MAVEN, the next planned Mars mission, even enthusiasts, such as Dr Pascal Lee of the Mars Institute, agree the prolonged weightlessness by being in space and the radiation of the planet is together sufficient to ensure that the person to land on Mars would not live much longer. The greatest challenge faced by a possible astronaut on a mission to Mars is the GCRs (galactic cosmic rays) which pass through the skin to breakdown the DNA and cellular structure of human beings. Testing conditions cannot simulate the effects of the GCRs yet.
Mars Missions In Cinema
A manned mission to Mars has fascinated people since the development of telescopic devices in the early 1600s. By the 20th century, with growing speculation about the planet’s sustainability of life, Mars started to capture the imaginations of artists and cinematographers. The number of movies based on the subject goes to prove the popularity of such an idea. In 1951, the Cinecolor sci-fi film Flight to Mars was released. The Angry Red Planet, a 1959 film was the next film to be shot on the topic. In 1964, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, a Techniscope sci-fi movie was released. The 1980 TV mini-series, The Martian Chronicles was based on Ray Bradbury’s work of the same name. The best-loved among the man-on-Mars movies, perhaps, is Total Recall (1990) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. The remake of the movie was released in August this year. Though Red Planet (2000) was not much of a success, Mission To Mars (2000) was well-received. Stranded: Náufragos, a Spanish film from 2001, won director María Lidón the 'Grand Prize of European Fantasy Film in Silver'. Mars Needs Moms (2011) 3-D motion capture animated movie was very popular with kids. Ghosts of Mars (2001), Christmas on Mars (2008), and John Carter (2012) are other noteworthy Mars mission movies.
Support for Manned Mission to Mars
NASA’s success in landing Curiosity has fuelled the prospects of a manned mission to Mars. From being the subject of sci-fi literature and movies and fantasy missions, putting man on the Mars has become a very real prospect. Various space agencies from different countries have worked on a number of missions. US President Barack Obama’s vision includes putting man on the Red Planet by 2030. The initial plans for a manned mission to the moon by 2020 were discontinues in 2010 and plans to send an astronaut to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars by 2030.
Despite Curiosity’s overwhelming interest, a Rasmussen Reports survey of 1,000 American adults indicates that only about 36% respondents agree a manned mission to Mars should be part of the US space program. A private Dutch group has a different agenda, though. In a private mission named Mars One, the group plans to set up permanent colonies on Mars by 2023. One of the project aims is to have over twenty people living in permanent residences on the Red Planet. But are these visions realistic?
Is a manned mission to Mars possible?