What is the Mars Curse?

What is the Mars Curse?


Last week, ESA’s Schiaparelli lander smashed onto the surface of Mars. Apparently its descent thrusters shut off early, and instead of gently landing on the surface, it hit hard, going 300 km/h, creating a 15-meter crater on the surface of Mars.

Fortunately, the orbiter part of ExoMars mission made it safely to Mars, and will now start gathering data about the presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere. If everything goes well, this might give us compelling evidence there’s active life on Mars, right now.

It’s a shame that the lander portion of the mission crashed on the surface of Mars, but it’s certainly not surprising. In fact, so many spacecraft have gone to the galactic graveyard trying to reach Mars that normally rational scientists turn downright superstitious about the place. They call it the Mars Curse, or the Great Galactic Ghoul.

Mars eats spacecraft for breakfast. It’s not picky. It’ll eat orbiters, landers, even gentle and harmless flybys. Sometimes it kills them before they’ve even left Earth orbit.

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft celebrated one Earth year in orbit around Mars on Sept. 21, 2015. MAVEN was launched to Mars on Nov. 18, 2013 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and successfully entered Mars’ orbit on Sept. 21, 2014. Credit: NASA
NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft celebrated one Earth year in orbit around Mars on Sept. 21, 2015. MAVEN was launched to Mars on Nov. 18, 2013 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and successfully entered Mars’ orbit on Sept. 21, 2014. Credit: NASA

At the time I’m writing this article in late October, 2016, Earthlings have sent a total of 55 robotic missions to Mars. Did you realize we’ve tried to hurl that much computing metal towards the Red Planet? 11 flybys, 23 orbiters, 15 landers and 6 rovers.

How’s our average? Terrible. Of all these spacecraft, only 53% have arrived safe and sound at Mars, to carry out their scientific mission. Half of all missions have failed.

Let me give you a bunch of examples.

In the early 1960s, the Soviets tried to capture the space exploration high ground to send missions to Mars. They started with the Mars 1M probes. They tried launching two of them in 1960, but neither even made it to space. Another in 1962 was destroyed too.

They got close with Mars 1 in 1962, but it failed before it reached the planet, and Mars 2MV didn’t even leave the Earth’s orbit.

Five failures, one after the other, that must have been heartbreaking. Then the Americans took a crack at it with Mariner 3, but it didn’t get into the right trajectory to reach Mars.

Mariner IV encounter with Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL
Mariner IV encounter with Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Finally, in 1964 the first attempt to reach Mars was successful with Mariner 4. We got a handful of blurry images from a brief flyby.

For the next decade, both the Soviets and Americans threw all kinds of hapless robots on a collision course with Mars, both orbiters and landers. There were a few successes, like Mariner 6 and 7, and Mariner 9 which went into orbit for the first time in 1971. But mostly, it was failure. The Soviets suffered 10 missions that either partially or fully failed. There were a couple of orbiters that made it safely to the Red Planet, but their lander payloads were destroyed. That sounds familiar.

Now, don’t feel too bad about the Soviets. While they were struggling to get to Mars, they were having wild success with their Venera program, orbiting and eventually landing on the surface of Venus. They even sent a few pictures back.

Finally, the Americans saw their greatest success in Mars exploration: the Viking Missions. Viking 1 and Viking 2 both consisted of an orbiter/lander combination, and both spacecraft were a complete success.

View of Mars from Viking 2 lander, September 1976. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
View of Mars from Viking 2 lander, September 1976. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Was the Mars Curse over? Not even a little bit. During the 1990s, the Russians lost a mission, the Japanese lost a mission, and the Americans lost 3, including the Mars Observer, Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander.

There were some great successes, though, like the Mars Global Surveyor and the Mars Pathfinder. You know, the one with the Sojourner Rover that’s going to save Mark Watney?

The 2000s have been good. Every single American mission has been successful, including Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and others.

But the Mars Curse just won’t leave the Europeans alone. It consumed the Russian Fobos-Grunt mission, the Beagle 2 Lander, and now, poor Schiaparelli. Of the 20 missions to Mars sent by European countries, only 4 have had partial successes, with their orbiters surviving, while their landers or rovers were smashed.

Is there something to this curse? Is there a Galactic Ghoul at Mars waiting to consume any spacecraft that dare to venture in its direction?

ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on 14 March 2016. Copyright ESA–Stephane Corvaja, 2016
ExoMars 2016 lifted off on a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan at 09:31 GMT on 14 March 2016. Copyright ESA–Stephane Corvaja, 2016

Flying to Mars is tricky business, and it starts with just getting off Earth. The escape velocity you need to get into low-Earth orbit is about 7.8 km/s. But if you want to go straight to Mars, you need to be going 11.3 km/s. Which means you might want a bigger rocket, more fuel, going faster, with more stages. It’s a more complicated and dangerous affair.

Your spacecraft needs to spend many months in interplanetary space, exposed to the solar winds and cosmic radiation.

Arriving at Mars is harder too. The atmosphere is very thin for aerobraking. If you’re looking to go into orbit, you need to get the trajectory exactly right or crash onto the planet or skip off and out into deep space.

And if you’re actually trying to land on Mars, it’s incredibly difficult. The atmosphere isn’t thin enough to use heatshields and parachutes like you can on Earth. And it’s too thick to let you just land with retro-rockets like they did on the Moon.

Schiaparelli lander descent sequence. Image: ESA/ATG medialab
Schiaparelli lander’s planned descent sequence. Image: ESA/ATG medialab

Landers need a combination of retro-rockets, parachutes, aerobraking and even airbags to make the landing. If any one of these systems fails, the spacecraft is destroyed, just like Schiaparelli.

If I was in charge of planning a human mission to Mars, I would never forget that half of all spacecraft ever sent to the Red Planet failed. The Galactic Ghoul has never tasted human flesh before. Let’s put off that first meal for as long as we can.

Weekly Space Hangout – Jan. 16, 2015: Hard Landings, False Alarms & Found Beagles

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Guests:
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Ramin Skibba (@raminskibba)
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein)
Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – Jan. 16, 2015: Hard Landings, False Alarms & Found Beagles”

Beagle 2: Found on Mars After An 11 Year Hunt

The final chapter in the saga of a wayward Mars lander was finally revealed today, as an international team released images showing the Beagle-2 lander’s final resting place on Mars.

Flashback to Christmas Day, 2003. While most folks gathered ‘round the tree and opened presents, the UK and European Space Agency awaited a gift from space.  The Beagle-2 Mars lander had been released from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter six days prior, and was coasting towards a perilous landing in Isidis Planitia and was set to phone home.

All was going according to plan, and then… silence.

It’s the worst part of any mission, waiting for a lander to call back and say that it’s safe and sound on the surface of another world. As the hours turned into days, anxious engineers used NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft and the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank to listen for the signal.

Beagle-2 was declared lost a few weeks later on February 6th, 2004.

But now, there’s a final twist to the tale to tell.

Beagle 2
Beagle 2, partially deployed on the Martian surface. Credit and Copyright: HiRISE/NASA/Leicester.

The UK Space Agency, working with ESA and NASA announced today that debris from the landing site had been identified and that indicates — contrary to suspicions — that Beagle-2 did indeed make it to the surface of the Red Planet intact. New images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter released today suggest that not only did Beagle-2 land, but that its airbags did indeed deploy properly and that the dish-shaped 1-meter in diameter spacecraft partially unfolded pocket-watch style after it had bounced to a stop.

“We are very happy to learn that Beagle 2 touched down on Mars,” said ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration in a recent press release. “The dedication of the various teams in studying high-resolution images in order to find the lander is inspiring.”

So, what went wrong with Beagle-2?

At this point, no further speculation as to what caused the lander to fall silent has been forthcoming, but today’s revelation is sure to rewrite the final saga of Beagle-2.

“Not knowing what happened to Beagle-2 remained a nagging worry,” said ESA’s Mars Express project manager Rudolf Schmidt. “Understanding now that Beagle-2 made it all the way down to the surface is excellent news.”

Speculation swirled across the internet earlier this week as the UK Space Agency and ESA suggested that new information as to the fate of Beagle-2 was forthcoming, over 11 years after the incident. Back in 2004, it was suggested that Beagle-2 had encountered higher levels of dust in the Martian atmosphere than expected, and that this in turn resulted in a failure of the spacecraft’s parachutes. Presumably, the lander then failed to slow down sufficiently and crashed on the surface of Mars, the latest victim of the Great Galactic Ghoul who seems to love dining on human-built spacecraft bound for the Red Planet.

Credit: ESA
An artist’s conception of Beagle-2 fully deployed on Mars. Credit: ESA.

The loss of Beagle-2 wasn’t only a blow to the UK and ESA, but to its principal investigator Colin Pillinger as well. Pillinger was involved in the search for Beagle-2 in later years, and also played a part in the Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as well. Unfortunately, Pillinger passed away in May of last year from a brain hemorrhage. A portion of the western rim of Endeavour Crater currently being explored by Opportunity was named Pillinger Point in his honor.

Today’s announcement has triggered a wave of congratulations that the 11-year mystery has been solved. There have even been calls on Twitter and social media to rename the Beagle-2 site Pillinger Station.

“The history of of space exploration is marked by both success and failure,” Said Dr. David Parker, the Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency in a recent press release. “This finding makes the case that Beagle-2 was more of a success than we previously knew and undoubtedly an important step in Europe’s continuing exploration of Mars.”

Click here for the animated .gif version.
Evidence of the successful landing of Beagle-2. Click here for the animated .gif version. Credit: University of Leicester/Beagle 2/NASA/University of Arizona.

Beagle-2 is about 2 metres across unfurled, and came to rest within 5 kilometres of its target location.

There have been false announcements of the discovery of Beagle-2 before. Back in late 2005, a claim was made that the lander had been spotted by Mars Global Surveyor, though later searches came to naught.

“I can imagine the sense of closure that the Beagle-2 team must feel,” Said JPL’s MRO project scientist Richard Zurek in a recent press release. “MRO has helped find safe landing sites on Mars for the Curiosity and Phoenix missions and has searched for missing craft to learn what may have gone wrong. It’s an extremely difficult task.”

MRO entered orbit in March 2006 and carries a 0.5 metre in diameter HiRISE camera capable of resolving objects just 0.3 metres across on the surface of Mars.  The European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter that carried Beagle 2 is also still in operation, along with NASA’s aging Mars Odyssey spacecraft. These were joined in orbit by MAVEN and India’s Mars Orbiter just last year.

All rights reserved Beagle 2.
Beagle-2 encapsulated in the lab. All rights reserved, Beagle-2.

Of course, getting to Mars is tough, and landing is even harder. Mars has just enough atmosphere that you have to deal with it, but it’s so tenuous – 0.6% the surface pressure of Earth’s atmosphere at sea level – That it doesn’t provide a whole lot of usable drag.

To date, only NASA had successfully landed on Mars, and done it seven times – only the Mars Polar Lander failed back in 1999. The Russians fared much worse, with their most successful lander being Mars 3, which sent back only one blurry image before falling silent.

ESA and the Russian Federal Space Agency hope to amend that with the launch of the ExoMars mission next year, slated to land on Mars in 2018.

I remember waiting with millions of other space fans for word back from Beagle 2 on Christmas Day 2003. Think back to what your internet connection was like over 11 years ago, in an era before smart phones, Twitter and Facebook. We’d just come off of the spectacular 2003 Mars opposition season, which provided the orbital geometry ideal for launching a mission to the Red Planet. This window only comes around once every 26 months.

Though Beagle 2 was a stationary lander akin to the Viking and Mars Phoenix missions, it had a robotic arm and a clever battery of experiments, including ones designed to search for life. The signal it was supposed to use to call home was designed by the UK pop rock band Blur, a jingle that never came.

Alas, we’ll have to wait to see what the alien plains around Isidis Planitia actually look like, just 13 degrees north of the Martian equator. But hey, a lingering mystery of the modern age of planetary exploration was solved this week.

Still, we’re now left with a new dilemma. Does this mean we’ll have to write a sequel to our science fiction short story The Hunt for Beagle?

-Read free original science fiction from Dave Dickinson every Friday, including ongoing chapters from The Hunt for Beagle.

 

 

 

 

Opportunity Peers Out from ‘Pillinger Point’ – Honoring British Beagle 2 Mars Scientist Where Ancient Water Flowed

NASA’s decade old Opportunity rover has reached a long sought after region of aluminum-rich clay mineral outcrops at a new Endeavour crater ridge now “named ‘Pillinger Point’ after Colin Pillinger the Principal Investigator for the [British] Beagle 2 Mars lander”, Prof. Ray Arvidson, Deputy Principal Investigator for the rover, told Universe Today exclusively. See above the spectacular panoramic view from ‘Pillinger Point’ – where ancient water once flowed billions of year ago.

The Beagle 2 lander was built to search for signs of life on Mars.

The Mars Exploration Rover (MER) team named the noteworthy ridge in honor of Prof. Colin Pillinger – a British planetary scientist at the Open University in Milton Keynes, who passed away at the age of 70 on May 7, 2014.

‘Pillinger Point’ is a scientifically bountiful place possessing both clay mineral outcrops and mineral veins where “waters came up through the cracks”, Arvidson explained to me.

Since water is a prerequisite for life as we know it, this is a truly fitting tribute to name Opportunity’s current exploration site ‘Pillinger Point’ after Prof. Pillinger.

See our new photo mosaic above captured by Opportunity peering out from ‘Pillinger Point’ ridge on June 5, 2014 (Sol 3684) and showing a panoramic view around the eroded mountain ridge and into vast Endeavour crater.

The gigantic crater spans 14 miles (22 kilometers) in diameter.

See below our Opportunity 10 Year traverse map showing the location of Pillinger Point along the segmented rim of Endeavour crater.

British planetary scientist Colin Pillinger with the Beagle 2 lander.
British planetary scientist Colin Pillinger with the Beagle 2 lander.

Pillinger Point is situated south of Solander Point and Murray Ridge along the western rim of Endeavour in a region with caches of clay minerals indicative of an ancient Martian habitable zone.

For the past several months, the six wheeled robot has been trekking southwards from Solander towards the exposures of aluminum-rich clays – now named Pillinger Point- detected from orbit by the CRISM spectrometer aboard NASA’s powerful Martian ‘Spysat’ – the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) – while gathering context data at rock outcrops along the winding way.

“We are about 3/5 of the way along the outcrops that show an Al-OH [aluminum-hydroxl] montmorillonite [clay mineral] signature at 2.2 micrometers from CRISM along track oversampled data,” Arvidson told me.

“We have another ~160 meters to go before reaching a break in the outcrops and a broad valley.”

The rover mission scientists ultimate goal is travel even further south to ‘Cape Tribulation’ which holds a motherlode of the ‘phyllosilicate’ clay minerals based on extensive CRISM measurements accomplished earlier at Arvidson’s direction.

“The idea is to characterize the outcrops as we go and then once we reach the valley travel quickly to Cape Tribulation and the smectite valley, which is still ~2 km to the south of the present rover location,” Arvidson explained.

Mars Express and Beagle 2 were launched in 2003, the same year as NASA’s twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity, on their interplanetary voyages to help unlock the mysteries of Mars potential for supporting microbial life forms.

Pillinger was the driving force behind the British built Beagle 2 lander which flew to the Red Planet piggybacked on ESA’s Mars Express orbiter. Unfortunately Beagle 2 vanished without a trace after being deployed from the orbiter on Dec. 19, 2003 with an expected air bag assisted landing on Christmas Day, Dec. 25, 2003.

In an obituary by the BBC, Dr David Parker, the chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said that Prof. Pillinger had played a critical role in raising the profile of the British space programme and had inspired “young people to dream big dreams”.

NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover captures sweeping panoramic vista near the ridgeline of 22 km (14 mi) wide Endeavour Crater’s western rim. The center is southeastward and also clearly shows the distant rim. See the complete panorama below. This navcam panorama was stitched from images taken on May 10, 2014 (Sol 3659) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover captures sweeping panoramic vista near the ridgeline of 22 km (14 mi) wide Endeavour Crater’s western rim. The center is southeastward and also clearly shows the distant rim. See the complete panorama below. This navcam panorama was stitched from images taken on May 10, 2014 (Sol 3659) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

During his distinguished career Pillinger also analyzed lunar rock samples from NASA’s Apollo moon landing missions and worked on ESA’s Rosetta mission.

“It’s important to note that Colin’s contribution to planetary science goes back to working on Moon samples from Apollo, as well as his work on meteorites,” Dr Parker told the BBC.

Today, June 16, marks Opportunity’s 3696th Sol or Martian Day roving Mars – compared to a warranty of just 90 Sols.

So far she has snapped over 193,400 amazing images on the first overland expedition across the Red Planet.

Her total odometry stands at over 24.51 miles (39.44 kilometers) since touchdown on Jan. 24, 2004 at Meridiani Planum.

NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover captures sweeping panoramic vista near the ridgeline of 22 km (14 mi) wide Endeavour Crater's western rim. The center is southeastward and the distant rim is visible in the center. An outcrop area targeted for the rover to study is at right of ridge.  This navcam panorama was stitched from images taken on May 10, 2014 (Sol 3659) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover captures sweeping panoramic vista near the ridgeline of 22 km (14 mi) wide Endeavour Crater’s western rim. The center is southeastward and the distant rim is visible in the center. An outcrop area targeted for the rover to study is at right of ridge. This navcam panorama was stitched from images taken on May 10, 2014 (Sol 3659) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

Meanwhile on the opposite side of Mars, Opportunity’s younger sister rover Curiosity is trekking towards gigantic Mount Sharp after drilling into her 3rd Red Planet rock at Kimberley.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2014 - A Decade on Mars. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during a decade on Mars and over 3692 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location along Pillinger Point ridge south of Solander Point summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater and heading to clay minerals at Cape Tribulation.  Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance - indicative of a habitable zone.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2014 – A Decade on Mars
This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during a decade on Mars and over 3692 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location along Pillinger Point ridge south of Solander Point summit at the western rim of Endeavour Crater and heading to clay minerals at Cape Tribulation. Opportunity discovered clay minerals at Esperance – indicative of a habitable zone. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Planetary Scientist Colin Pillinger Dies

British planetary scientist Colin Pillinger has passed away. Pillinger, age 70, was best known as leading the 2003 attempt to land the Beagle 2 spacecraft on Mars, part of the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission.

His family said in a statement: “It is with profound sadness that we are telling friends and colleagues that Colin, whilst sitting in the garden yesterday afternoon, suffered a severe brain hemorrhage resulting in a deep coma. He died peacefully this afternoon at Addenbrooke’s hospital, Cambridge, without regaining consciousness … We ask that all respect our privacy at this devastating and unbelievable time.”

While the Beagle 2 spacecraft failed and likely crashed on Mars, the mission was notable because it was the first time an individual researcher had sent their own vessel into space and the first British-built interplanetary spacecraft. However, a lack of funding meant the Beagle 2 project always struggled. The spacecraft did launch, but all contact with Beagle 2 was lost after its separation from the Mars Express spacecraft, just six days before atmospheric entry.

However, the BBC noted that the mission was “a turning point in bringing together the space science and industrial communities in the UK – which didn’t used to speak with one voice. Beagle-2 wasn’t built in Colin’s backyard: it was the product of UK brains and hard-work in many companies and universities.”

You can read more about Pillager’s career and achievements at the BBC and the International Business Times.

Scientists Still Searching for the Beagle 2 Crash Site on Mars

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Since its disappearance in December 2003, scientists and citizen scientists alike have continued the search for Europe’s Beagle 2 lander which likely crashed on Mars. Its disappearance is a mystery and if the spacecraft could be located, it might be possible to discover what went wrong.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s powerful HiRISE camera has been regularly taking high-resolution images of the Isidis basin region where the Beagle 2 lander was supposed to touch down.

“Nothing resembling the Beagle lander has been seen in any of the HiRISE images, although we aren’t sure that they’ve been thoroughly searched,” said HiRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen, writing on the HiRISE website.

So, join in the search and take a look!

Above is the 12th such image taken by HiRISE.

McEwen said the easiest thing to spot would be the bright parachute — if it actually deployed. Remember how HiRISE was able to find the parachutes at the MER landing sites, and even capture the Phoenix lander descending on its parachute? The Beagle 2’s parachute would be a good clue to search for.

(As we reported earlier, the HiRISE team will attempt to image the Mars Science Laboratory during its descent to Mars’ surface in August, as it did for Phoenix.)

Dust should not be a problem as far as hiding the lander or parachutes, McEwen said. “Dust deposition over the past eight years probably would not disguise the bright feature over equatorial regions of Mars,” he said noting that the parachutes are still easy to spot at the MER and Pathfinder landing sites. “At high latitudes the brightness patterns are reset each winter by the seasonal deposits of carbon-dioxide and dust, as seen at the Phoenix landing site.”

All contact with Beagle 2 was lost after its separation from the Mars Express spacecraft, just six days before atmospheric entry. McEwen said the lack of telemetry on its way to the surface means there is little information about where the spacecraft may have landed on the surface, but searching in the region where it was expected to land is a good place to start.

You can download high-resolution version of this images here.

For an idea of what the Beagle 2 hardware might look like, see this web page.