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.

Teasing the Galactic Ghoul, Past and Present

Launch. It’s the part of spaceflight that is always the most fraught with peril, as your precious and delicate scientific package is encapsulated on top of tons of explosives, the fuze is lit, and the whole package hurls spaceward.

As noted by Bob King earlier last week on Universe Today, the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter underwent just such an ordeal on March 14th, as it broke the surly bonds atop a Russian Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, and headed towards the Red Planet with the Schiaparelli Lander affixed snug to its side. The spacecraft may have very nearly suffered a disaster that would’ve left it literally dead in space.

Don’t worry; the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is OK and safely in a heliocentric orbit now, en route for an orbital insertion around the Red Planet on October 19th, 2016. But our robotic ambassadors haven’t always been so lucky.

The Road to the Red Planet

Launching for Mars is a complex odyssey. Unlike U.S. Mars missions such as MAVEN and Curiosity, which typically launch atop an Atlas V rocket and head directly into solar orbit after launch, Russian Proton rocket launches initially enter a looping elliptical orbit around the Earth, and require a series of successive engine burns to raise the payload’s orbit for a final injection headed to Mars.

All was well as the upper stages did their job, four burns were performed, and the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter phoned home indicating it was in good health afterwards.

It’s what happened next that gave planners a start, and is still the source of a minor controversy.

While Russian sources tracked the Briz-M upper stage and say it worked as planned, observatories based in the southern hemisphere imaged the departure of ExoMars noted about half a dozen fragments following it. Having done its job, the Briz-M stage was to execute a maneuver after separation, placing it into a ‘graveyard’ solar orbit. Not only would this clear ExoMars on its trajectory, but the Red Planet itself.

Anatoly Zak notes in a recent article for Popular Mechanics online that the Briz-M upper stage isn’t subjected to strict sterilization measures, though its unclear if it too will reach Mars.

Solar orbit is littered with discarded boosters and spacecraft, going all the way back to the first mission to fly past the Moon and image the lunar farside, the Soviet Union’s Luna 3 in 1959. Some of these even come back on occasion to revisit the Earth as temporary moonlets, such as the Apollo 12 booster in 2002 and the Chang’e-2 booster in 2013.

And there is nothing more that the fabled ‘Galactic Ghoul’ loves than tasty Mars-bound spacecraft. Though the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is in its expected trajectory to Mars as planned, it seems that the the Briz-M upper stage may have exploded seconds after spacecraft separation.

Image credit:
Encapsulation of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and Shiaperelli atop the Briz-M upper stage. Image credit: ESA/B. Bethge

The incident is eerily similar to the fate that befell the Phobos-Grunt sample return mission. Also launched from Baikonur, the spacecraft was stranded in Earth orbit after its Fregat upper stage failed to do its job. Phobos-Grunt reentered on January 15th, 2012 just over two months after launch, taking its container of Planetary Society-funded tardigrades scheduled to make the round trip to Mars permanently to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean instead.

The Mars 96 mission also failed to leave Earth orbit, and reentered over South America on November 16th, 1996 with a radioactive payload meant for power surface penetrators bound for the Red Planet.

The Russians haven’t had good luck with Mars landers, though they fared better landing on Venus with their Venera program… and had at least one spare Venusian Death Probe crash on Earth and fight the Six Million Dollar Man back in the 1970’s TV show, to boot.

The U.S. has actually had pretty good luck on Mars, having only lost the Mars Polar Lander for seven successful landing attempts. If successful later this year, Schiaparelli will be a first landing on Mars for any other space agency other than NASA.

Image credit:
The first image from the surface of Mars? The only picture returned from Russia’s Mars 3 spacecraft, which fell silent 14 seconds after touchdown. Image credit: The Soviet Academy of Sciences.

And you’ll be able to explore Mars for yourself shortly, as opposition season for the Red Planet is right around the corner. Opposition for 2016 occurs on May 22nd, and we’re in for a cycle of favorable oppositions leading up to one in 2018 that’s very nearly as favorable as the historic 2003 opposition.

Space is hard, but the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter seems to be made of still harder stuff, the likes of which no explosion in space can kill.

Onward to Mars!