For decades, the study and exploration of Mars have been a top priority of the world’s biggest space agencies. The Solar System’s most studied celestial body is apart from Earth. Understanding the history of the previous Mars missions helps put into perspective how far we have come and what the future may hold for the 4th rock from the sun.
This year is a particularly noteworthy one for the future of NASA’s efforts to explore Mars’ surface. On February 18, NASA’s Perseverance rover successfully landed in Mars’ Jezero Crater, site of an ancient river delta and a likely location for ancient life-forms to have thrived. Ushering in a new period of discovery on the red planet in which samples will be retrieved and returned to Earth for the first time. Even more recently, On April 19th, NASA’s Ingenuity drone made history by completing the first propelled flight on any planet other than Earth.
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The success of the ingenuity drone ensures that the Mars mission will now get the opportunity to get underway with its planned experiments. The six-wheeled rover can now head out to address one of humanity’s most profound questions: Are we truly alone in the universe? For more than a century, we’ve believed that the solution could possibly be found on Mars, a world that has enticed us with numerous claims of single-celled existence.
Mars missions have had an exciting history, with more than 50 planned and partially executed missions. A high failure rate marked the early attempts at Mars exploration. Approximately 30% of all Mars missions failed before achieving their objectives, and some also failed before their observations could begin. These missions explored the antique riverbeds present on the soil, which indicate the existence of flowing water and perhaps past life forms that could lie buried underneath the planet’s forbidding exterior.
NASA’s Viking 1 and 2 probes were the first to successfully fly within the planet’s atmosphere above the planet’s surface in 1976 and return to earth in 1982. The main goals of these missions were to get high-resolution photographs of the Martian surface, describe the geographic shape and chemistry of the atmosphere and planet, and look for signs of life. The probes also carried out biological tests on the traces of Martian soil found in the atmosphere in the hopes of finding evidence of moisture. However, the findings were inconclusive, and scientists are still debating how to classify the details.
The first free-moving rover on Mars, named the Sojourner, was deployed by NASA in 1996 as part of the Mars Pathfinder program. It had front and rear cameras, as well as some primitive hardware to execute several experimental studies. It was designed for a 7-day mission, with the possibility of a 30-day extension if practical. Still, it ended up being operational for 85 days, establishing a history of rovers outperforming their initial objectives that are seen repeatedly in following missions.
The Sojourner rover set the groundwork for its processors in the pathfinder program, ‘The Adventure Twins; Spirit and Opportunity. Spirit and Opportunity arrived on Mars on the 3rd and 24th of January, 2004. Both rovers continued the Sojourners’ legacy of exceeding all standards by staying well longer than their 90-day missions. Spirit lasted 20 times longer than its initial design before completing its mission in 2010. Its brother, Opportunity, existed on Mars for almost 15 years before breaking contact with Earth in 2018 due to a planet-wide dust storm.
On their decade-long mission, the Adventure Twins took over 100,000 photos of the Martian surface, despite the fact that they didn’t travel far, with Opportunity only travelling 42 kilometres from his landing site in the 15 years he was active.
The next generation in NASA led mars missions was the Curiosity rover. The rover’s objectives included studying the Martian climate and geology, determining whether the chosen field site had ever provided environmental conditions favourable for microbial life (including investigating the role of water in the red planet’s history), and planetary habitability studies in preparation for human exploration.
The Curiosity rover also has the distinction of broadcasting the first piece of music ever heard on Mars. A song written by rapper and songwriter will.i.am called “Reach for the Stars”. The rover then repeated a similar feat on August 5, 2017, when NASA programmed it to sing happy birthday to itself on the fifth anniversary of its landing, claiming the honour of the first song sung on the planet’s surface. The success of the Curiosity rover has led us to where we are now, with the Perseverance rover’s promising future.
The stubbornness that comes with looking for life in such an inhospitable environment is probably the most blatant expression of our need for companionship, a yearning for connection, a need to believe that we are not alone in the universe. For the most part, humans depend on other humans to survive, and this may also be so on a planetary scale.
For the ancient Romans, Mars was a symbol of blood and war, but for many people today, the red planet is a symbol of hope for humanity’s promising future.