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Mars: The shy red neighbor

As the closest planet to Earth; As it is only eighty million kilometers away, Mars is considered a ripe red apple in the field of space exploration. However, the small planet presents a major challenge due to its harsh terrain, toxic atmosphere, and extreme climate. The planet Mars was named after the ancient Roman god of war. It is the fourth planet farthest from the sun, its size is half the size of planet Earth, and it has two moons: Phobos and Deimos.

The Soviet Union made the first attempt to send a probe to the surface of Mars in the 1960s; However, the probe, nicknamed Marsnik 1, failed to reach Earth’s orbit, and the mission ended in failure. In 1993, NASA launched the Mars Exploration Program with four ambitious goals: These are: determining whether this red planet once hosted life, studying and describing the planet’s geology and climate, and finally preparing for human exploration on the planet’s surface.

Over the years, the program has faced huge challenges; From entering the planet’s orbit to landing on its surface. One of the most difficult challenges was developing technologies that could function properly in the hostile environment on Mars; Countless engineering maneuvers had to be performed to ensure that the probe, balloons, and sampling systems could withstand and function properly under the harsh environmental conditions of the Martian desert.

The program’s basic strategy was simply to search for signs of life to prove whether Mars had once been, or perhaps would be in the future, a habitable environment for biological life forms. Because water is the secret to life, the first Mars missions—Mars Odyssey 2001, Mars Exploration Rovers, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and Mars Phoenix Lander—focused on detecting any signs of water in the past or present. Images from exploratory missions indicate the presence of water on the surface of Mars in the past, and the sizes, shapes, and distribution of geological specimens – such as sand, pebbles, and small rocks – strongly indicate that they were formed by water and its movement in the ancient past.

To date, Curiosity has completed all its missions. The 899-kg, car-sized rover was launched to Mars on November 26, 2011 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and landed on the Martian surface on August 6, 2012 on the Palos Aeolian Plain*. The probe’s first goal was to spend 687 days in Gale Crater on the surface of Mars. However, continuous combing of the Martian soil took about 1,532 days, or nearly four years. Work continued day and night in all seasons of the year, using a special set of radioisotope thermal generators; Excess heat is diverted through an internal greenhouse system to keep the probe’s sensitive electronic sampling and analysis equipment at normal operating temperature, protected from the cold Martian atmosphere.

As Earth’s first ambassador to Mars, Curiosity has done a great job studying Mars’ geology and climate, and investigating whether its chosen research field—Gale Crater—ever hosted any kind of microbial life. The probe is now providing information that will one day become the cornerstone of future human exploration on Mars.

However, sending humans to the surface of Mars will be a completely different challenge with an atmosphere a hundred times thinner than Earth’s, and an average temperature of -63°C. Landing a ship carrying humans safely on Mars is extremely difficult due to the uneven terrain of the planet, which consists mainly of mountainous terrain filled with rugged rocky features such as hills, craters, and trenches. Landing sites must be carefully selected and landing thrusters designed in a way that ensures a soft and stable landing to avoid the vehicle capsizing.

The future of the Mars exploration program remains uncertain; Because of the huge cost of previous missions, and the exceptionally high failure rates, it has become very difficult to muster enough popular support to provide the necessary funds for any other mission. However, scientists still hope that at some point in the near future there will be enough will and means to continue the marathon of Mars exploration, and eventually gather enough knowledge to enable the human race to visit their shy, red neighbour.

the reviewer


This article first appeared in print in Science Planet, Winter 2017 issue.

Cover image by Freepik

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