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In search of a spare planet: how earthlings are exploring Mars and what they want from it

In recent years, Mars has been the most frequent hit in news headlines over other planets. In July 2020, three missions went to the Red Planet from Earth at once: the United Arab Emirates, China and the United States. AND the whole world watched the landing of the Perseverance rover on February 18, 2021... Why people are so attracted to the Red Planet, the publication said Voice of America.

Photo: Shutterstock

Why do earthlings need Mars

When the question arises, where else, besides our Earth, a person could live, the name of the fourth planet from the Sun comes to mind first. And for good reason: Mars is an ideal candidate in terms of accessibility, suitable living conditions and, including political potential.

The exploration of the near moon seems to be a more logical option, but scientists and enthusiastic colonists are much less interested in the Earth's satellite.

The moon is a very problematic neighbor in terms of constant colonization. Deprived of an atmosphere, it is unable to fully protect the colonists from radiation and meteorite threats, and the commercial potential of the Moon exploration has long been a subject of controversy.

In addition, the Moon has been studied much better than Mars, and it is becoming more and more difficult to surprise other states with an unexpected mission and new discoveries. In one form or another, missions to the moon were sent by the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Japan, India, Israel and many European countries.

Therefore, in the case of Mars, it is much easier to insert a weighty word in space exploration. Despite the large amount of research, there is still a lot to be explored. In this regard, the name of China's July mission to Mars is symbolic: "Tianwen", that is, "questions to the sky."

The more distant contenders for colonization also cannot compete with Mars. Venus, although it is noticeably closer to the Red Planet, has a much more aggressive environment: all devices were able to work on the surface of Venus for no more than two hours, and there can be no question of being on the planet itself.

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Other objects of the solar system with relatively acceptable conditions for life (for example, the satellites of Jupiter) are much further away from Mars.

Compared to other planets, Mars is a relatively "comfortable" planet, moreover, so much so that the question of the existence of Martian life is still on the agenda despite decades of research.

But not everything is so rosy. A person is not able to live on Mars without a special suit: the average temperature there is about -60 ° C, the pressure does not exceed a percentage of the earth's indicators, and its atmosphere almost does not protect from radiation and is extremely poor in oxygen.

Although getting to Mars is easier than, for example, to Mercury (although it is closer), reaching the Red Planet is a difficult task.

Almost two-thirds of all flights to Mars were unsuccessful. Even if it is possible to put the spacecraft on the correct trajectory and maintain its operation for many months of flight, it is far from the fact that at the end of the path the spacecraft will be in the orbit of Mars and, moreover, on its surface.

It is also important to guess the required launch date: only once every one and a half to two years, the Earth is between the Sun and Mars, and it is at this moment that the path between the two planets is minimal and takes only seven months. In 2020, this moment fell on July, which became the reason for three launches to Mars at once.

Mariners vs. Mars

In the early 1960s, the space race between the United States and the USSR was in full swing. The Soviet Union pulled ahead: the laurels of the first satellite and the first man in space, which were fundamental in terms of prestige, belonged to Moscow.

Only a manned launch to the Moon could become comparable in its ambition, but the development of lunar programs could take a long time (and it turned out: American astronauts set foot on the surface of the Earth's satellite only in 1969).

The United States needed a small but significant space victory much earlier, but the Soviet Union did not plan to concede in the space race.

For this reason, both countries have rushed to conquer the Red Planet since the early 1960s. However, it became clear from the outset that travel to Mars would not be an easy space cruise.

The first attempts were made by the USSR and almost all of them ended in failure. In 1960, the Mars-1960A and Mars-1960B vehicles were supposed to go into space from Baikonur, but the mission failed because of the accident of the Molniya carrier rocket. The next few launches were also unsuccessful.

 

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The series of failures ended in 1962, but this launch was fraught with many difficulties. The launch of the Molniya rocket was planned until November 1962, but the plans were almost impeded by the Cuban missile crisis.

At the time of the peak of the confrontation between the United States and the USSR, ICBMs with nuclear warheads were deployed at the Baikonur sites, and talk about the conquest of Mars was replaced by a discussion of the situation around Cuba.

However, the launch did take place: on November 1, the Mars-1 station went on a flight towards Mars. The device was only able to approach the planet from afar: at a distance of about 200 thousand kilometers from Mars, communication with the device was lost.

In 1964, the United States officially entered the race to Mars with the launch of the Mariner 4 probe. He was able to fly to the target at a record distance of 9 thousand 846 kilometers and sent the first ever photographs of the planet to Earth.

Humanity was looking forward to these photos. World culture and some representatives of the scientific community have speculated for too long about what awaits us on the mysterious fourth planet.

Scientists saw long irrigation channels in their telescopes (it was later proved to be an optical illusion), and the plot of HG Wells' novel about the invasion of the Martians "War of the Worlds" worried many earthlings.

The reality turned out to be much more prosaic. Images of the lifeless and deserted surface of Mars may have been disappointing for many, but the first photographs of a distant celestial body became an important milestone in the study of the planet.

The next successful "Mariner" was the ninth device in this series, which in 1971 became the first artificial satellite of Mars. For a year, he explored the planet and its two satellites - Deimos and Phobos.

In 1971, which was a successful year for the Mars missions, the Soviet Union was able to recover from a series of failures. Mars-2 first reached the surface of the planet, though not quite as planned: the device crashed on the surface.

Mars 3 was a little more fortunate: it made a successful landing and even began work. True, he did not have to work for a long time: after 14 seconds, a dust storm covered the rover, because of which communication with it was lost.

In 1975, NASA entrusted the Mariners business to two automatic stations: Viking-1 and Viking-2. Largely thanks to the photographs taken by the long-suffering Mariners, the history of the Vikings turned out to be much more successful.

The devices became the first people from Earth to function on the Red Planet for a long time. No less important were the orbital units of the "Vikings", which have done a gigantic job of capturing Mars in the pictures. In total, over fifty thousand photos of the planet were sent to Earth within the framework of the program, many of which are still of great research value.

The success of the Apollo program (during which a manned flight to the moon took place) instilled confidence in the US leadership that primacy in the space race is now out of danger. As a result, NASA funding was significantly reduced, and many ambitious projects, including a manned flight to Mars, were removed from development.

The era of rovers

Only a decade later, man decided to return to Mars. And he began, as has already become customary for Mars, with failures.

In 1988, the Soviet Union sent two spacecraft of the same name to the Phobos satellite. Communication with the first was lost on the way to the satellite, and the second still managed to take pictures of Phobos. True, one of the main tasks of the mission - to land on it - was never completed.

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NASA was not lucky either. In the early 1990s, the agency also decided to return to the Martian theme. The Mars Observer spacecraft was launched to the planet, which was supposed to study Mars in detail from orbit for several years. However, it never went into orbit.

A bad start prompted NASA to rethink its approach to Mars exploration. A new Mars Exploration Program (MEP) was adopted, and the details of the Observer's flight formed the basis of one of the most successful missions in the history of the exploration of the Red Planet.

As part of the new program, the Mars Global Surveyor, an unmanned research station, was sent to Mars. Within the framework of MEP, NASA's approach has radically changed: now researchers are interested in the availability of water, life on Mars and the possibility of its further colonization.

Surveyor collected a huge amount of data, materials, photographs and samples, worked several times longer than expected on Earth.

The Russian spacecraft Mars-8, launched a week after Surveyor, was much less fortunate. The device could not be put on the desired trajectory and was lost when it left the near-earth orbit.

In 1997, a Mars rover landed on the surface of the Red Planet. As part of the Pathfinder project, the Sojourner rover was sent to Mars. Its name (literally "temporary resident") refers to the name of Sojourner Trut, an American feminist who fought for the rights of African American women.

The first American rover was far more fortunate than its Soviet predecessor in 1971. In total, Sojourner drove a hundred meters on the surface and failed three months later.

In 1998, the first flight to Mars took place, conducted by non-American or Russian-Soviet engineers. The Japanese probe Nozomi successfully launched from Earth and, albeit with a delay, reached Mars five years later. Alas, Mars turned out to be unfriendly for Japanese engineers: at the very orbit, the probe flew past and flew into space.

A slightly more successful fate awaited European researchers. In 2003, the Mars Express spacecraft entered Martian orbit, where it remains to this day. The initiators of the mission failed to descend below orbit: the British probe crashed during the fall.

Meanwhile, the Martian rovers continued to search for water and life on Mars. The Spirit and Opportunity projects have successfully explored the planet's surface, albeit with very different durations. Spirit got stuck in soft ground in 2011, and Opportunity proved to be much more tenacious and only finished work in 2019. One of the rover's major discoveries is evidence of past water activity on Mars.

In 2014, the list of countries whose ships reached the Red Planet was replenished by India, which sent the Mangalyan spacecraft into space.

Russia, meanwhile, gave the Martian surface at the mercy of American colleagues and continued to try to reach Phobos. Alas, again unsuccessful: the ambitious Phobos-Grunt project was supposed to bring soil samples from such a celestial object to Earth for the first time in history, but could not leave Earth's orbit.

Around the same time, an American rocket was launched from Earth, carrying the Curiosity rover. Being actually a laboratory on wheels, the rover is actively engaged in drilling the Martian rock to this day, pleases earthlings with numerous selfies and sends a huge amount of information about Mars.

In 2018, the rover was accompanied by the Insight, which deals with slightly different tasks. Its two main instruments are a seismometer for studying tectonic and meteorite activity, as well as a drill capable of drilling a well up to five meters deep.

Perseverance to replace Curiosity

Although there has been a lot of talk about Mars over the past decade, the Red Planet is now more popular than ever.

On July 30, 2020, NASA sent a new rover to Mars, which reached its surface on February 18, 2021. It was given the name Perseverance, which was chosen from 28 thousand applications sent by American students.

The new rover is very similar to its legendary predecessor. Like Curiosity, Perseverance has many different types of spectrometers, as well as a modified system for drilling and storing soil samples.

This system is clearly useful to the rover. It is part of an ambitious project that the Soviet Union once tried to implement. His goal is to deliver samples of Martian rocks to Earth. True, it is not worth waiting for a particle of the Red Planet on Earth in the near future: the project may drag on for more than a decade.

Satellite images of Jezero crater indicate that a now dry river once flowed into a huge lake there.

It is one of the best-preserved Martian deltas, where rivers have formed layers of sediment from brought in rock debris, sand, and possibly organic hydrocarbons.

Scientists hope that various types of rocks deep in the crater, including carbonates and clay, may have retained organic molecules that could indicate the existence of life on Mars in the distant past.

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Perseverance will survey the bed of a dry lake, drill rocky rocks and extract samples the size of a piece of chalk. After that, the rover will carefully pack them into containers that will remain on the surface of the planet.

Another device will take them away - it is planned to launch it later. It will lift the collected samples into orbit on Mars (this will be the first space takeoff from the Red Planet) and deliver them to Earth.

All this is provided within the framework of the "Sending Martian Samples" program, which NASA is carrying out in cooperation with the European Space Agency.

Rover will try to bring humanity closer to one of the main questions about Mars: is life possible on the planet. NASA notes: the rover will "follow the water" and try to find signs of ancient Martian life from the era when Mars had water.

Now, almost a week after landing, the rover has an active social life - it has personal Twitter account, where photos and videos from the Red Planet are published.

Other launches

Shortly before the launch of Perseverance, the Al Amal interplanetary station also went to Mars, which also successfully reached the planet's orbit. The device will try to justify its name "Hope" by becoming such for the space ambitions of the Arab countries. Launched by the United Arab Emirates, it became the first Martian exploration vehicle created by a country in the Arab world.

While Nadezhda's plans are to explore the atmosphere of the Red Planet, the tasks of another Martian debutant, the Chinese probe Tianwen-1, are closer to American projects. The Questions to the Sky apparatus, also launched in July 2020, will collect soil samples and try to find signs of life on Mars.

In 2024, India plans to launch the Mangalyan-2 spacecraft following its past orbiting satellite, which may be equipped with the first Indian rover.

Russia plans, together with its European colleagues, to continue the ExoMars project, which provides for the delivery of a descent module, Kazachok landing platform and an autonomous rover to the planet. Russia does not give up hopes of conquering the satellites of Mars - after the failure of the Phobos-Grunt mission in 2011, the Russian Federation intends to repeat the attempt in 2024.

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The launch of the Artemis program became a definite milestone for American astronautics. Its mission is to return humans to the moon and thus lay the foundation for future manned missions to Mars. NASA engineers estimate that a person will be able to step on the surface of the fourth planet from the Sun no earlier than 2030.

While NASA is thinking how a person can set foot on the Martian surface, Elon Musk is already talking about how to send several hundred colonists to Mars.

The Starship, according to Musk's idea, could in the future become part of an ambitious interplanetary transport system. As the entrepreneur hopes, the ship will be able to transport up to one hundred people to the Red Planet in one voyage, which can lay the foundation for a permanent colony on Mars.

The development of Starship is not yet complete, and not all tests are going well. However, despite the ambitiousness of Elon Musk's task, many SpaceX projects have shown that even the most fantastic ideas can be brought to life. And it is quite possible that in a few decades a person will be able to call himself a full-fledged inhabitant of the Martian colony.

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