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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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Scene from ‘The Martian’ starring Matt Damon as NASA astronaut Mark Watney contemplating magnificent panoramic vista while stranded alone on Mars.
Credits: 20th Century Fox
See real Martian maps and flyover video from DLR and NSA below
Go now and experience Hollywood’s blockbuster new space epic ‘The Martian’ helmed by world renowned director Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon as the protagonist, NASA astronaut Mark Watney. And you can follow Watney’s dramatic fictional path across the Red Planet in newly released real photos and a flyover video of the region, from DLR and NASA, as it looks today.
‘The Martian’ is a mesmerizingly enjoyable cinematic triumph for everyone that’s all about science, space exploration and one man’s struggle to survive while left totally isolated on the Red Planet in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds – relying on his wits alone to endure “on a planet where nothing grows” while hoping somehow for a rescue by NASA four years in the future.
The movie combines compelling and plausible storytelling with outstanding special effects that’s clearly delighting huge audiences worldwide with a positive and uplifting view of what could be achieved in the future – if only we really put our minds to it!
Based on the bestselling book by Andy Weir, ‘The Martian’ movie from 20th Century Fox tells the spellbinding story of how NASA astronaut Mark Watney is accidentally stranded on the surface of Mars during the future Ares 3 manned expedition in 2035, after a sudden and unexpectedly fierce dust storm forces the rest of the six person crew – commanded by Jessica Chastain as Commander Lewis – to quickly evacuate after they believe he is dead.
Now you can follow the fictional exploits of Mark Watney’s stunningly beautiful trail across the real Mars through a set of newly released maps, imagery and a 3D video created by the DLR, the German Aerospace Agency, and NASA – and based on photos taken by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).
DLR’s stunning 3D overflight video sequence was created from a dataset of 7300 stereo images covering roughly two-and-a-half million square kilometres of precisely mapped Martian landscape captured over the past 12 years by Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC). The electric score is by Stephan Elgner.
Video Caption: Following the path of The Martian – video generated using images acquired by the Mars Express orbiter. Scientists from German Aerospace Center, DLR– who specialise in producing highly accurate topographical maps of Mars – reconstructed Watney’s route using stereo image data acquired by the High Resolution Stereo Camera on board European Space Agency’s #MarsExpress spacecraft. They then compiled this data into a video that shows the spectacular landscape that the protagonist would see ‘in the future’ on his trek from Ares 3 at Acidalia Planitia/Chryse Planitia to Ares 4 at Schiaparelli Crater. Credit: DLR/ESA
Ridley Scotts ‘The Martian’ takes place mostly on the surface of the Red Planet and is chock full of breathtakingly beautiful panoramic vistas. In the book you can only imagine Mars. In the movie Scott’s talents shine as he immerses you in all the action on the alien world of Mars from the opening scene.
Starting with the landing site for Watney’s Ares 3 mission crew at Acidalia Planitia, the book and movie follows his triumphs and tribulations, failures and successes as he logically solves one challenging problem after another – only to face increasingly daunting and unexpected hurdles as time goes by and supplies run low.
The DLR route map shows a real topographic view of Watney’s initial journey back and forth from the fictional Ares 3 landing site to the actual landing site of NASA’s 1997 Mars Pathfinder lander and Sojourner rover mission at the mouth of Ares Vallis.
The map continues with Watney’s months-long epic trek to the fictional landing site of Ares 4 Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) spacecraft at Schiaparelli Crater, by way of Marth Valles and other Martian landmarks, craters and valleys.
At the request of Andy Weir, the HiRISE camera on NASA’s MRO orbiter took photos of the Martian plain at the Ares 3 landing site in Acidalia Planitia, which is within driving distance from the Pathfinder lander and Sojourner rover in the book and movie.
The Martian is all about how Watney uses his botany, chemistry and engineering skills to “Science the sh** out of it” to grow food and survive until the hoped for NASA rescue.
Learning how to live off the land will be a key hurdle towards enabling NASA’s real strategy for long term space voyages on a ‘Journey to Mars’ and back.
‘The Martian’ is a must see movie that broadly appeals to space enthusiasts and general audiences alike who can easily identify with Watney’s ingenuity and will to live.
Since its worldwide premiere on Oct. 2, ‘The Martian’ has skyrocketed to the top of the US box office for the second weekend in a row, hauling in some $37.3 million. The total domestic box office receipts now top $108 million and rockets to over $228 million worldwide in the first 10 days alone.
I absolutely loved ‘The Martian’ when I first saw the movie on opening weekend. And enjoyed it even more the second time, when I could pick up a few details I missed the first time around.
The movie begins as the crew evacuates after they believe Watney was killed by the dust storm. Watney actually survived the storm but lost contact with NASA. The film recounts his ingenious years long struggle to survive, figure out how to tell NASA he is alive and send a rescue crew before he starves to death on a planet where nothing grows. Watney’s predicament is a survival lesson to all including NASA.
‘The Martian’ was written by Andy Weir in 2010 and the film could well break the October movie box office record currently held by ‘Gravity.’
The movie closely follows the book, which I highly recommend you read at some point.
By necessity, the 2 hour 20 minute movie cannot capture every event in the book. So there is an abbreviated sense of Watney’s detailed science to survive and lengthy overland trips.
All the heroics and difficulties in traveling to Pathfinder and back and getting communications started, as well as the final month’s long journey to Schiaparelli crater are significantly condensed, but captured in spirit.
The Martian is brilliant and intelligent and rivals Stanley Kubrik’s space epic ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ as one of the top movies about humanities space exploration quest.
The one big science inaccuracy takes place right at the start with the violent Martian dust storm.
On Mars the atmosphere is so thin that the winds would not be anywhere near as powerful or destructive as portrayed. This is acknowledged by Weir and done for dramatic license. We can look past that since the remainder of the tale portrays a rather realistic architectural path to Mars and vision of how scientists and engineers think. Plus the dust storms can in fact kick up tremendous amounts of particles that significantly block sunlight from impinging on solar energy generating panels.
Personally I can’t wait for the ‘Directors Cut’ with an added 30 to 60 minutes of scenes that were clearly filmed – but not included in the original theatrical release.
THE MARTIAN features a star studded cast that includes Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Donald Glover.
“NASA has endorsed “The Martian’” Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Sciences, told Universe Today. Green served as technical consultant on the film.
The DLR film was created by a team led by Ralf Jaumann from the DLR Institute of Planetary Research, Principal Investigator for HRSC. He believes that producing the overflight video was not just a gimmick for a science fiction film:
“Mars generates immense fascination, and our curiosity continues to grow! Many people are interested in our research, and young people in particular want to know what it is really like up there, and how realistic the idea that one day people will leave their footprints on the surface of Mars truly is. The data acquired by HRSC shows Mars with a clarity and detail unmatched by any other experiment. Only images acquired directly on the surface, for instance by rovers like Curiosity, are even closer to reality, but they can only show a small part of the planet. Thanks to this animation, we have even noticed a few new details that we had not seen in a larger spatial context. That is why we made the film – it helps everyone see what it would be like for Watney to travel through these areas… the clouds were the only creative touches we added, because, fortunately, they do not appear in the HRSC data,” according to a DLR statement.
Here’s the second official trailer for The Martian:
As a scientist and just plain Earthling, my most fervent hope is that ‘The Martian’ will inspire our young people to get interested in all fields of science, math and engineering and get motivated to become the next generation of explorers – here on Earth and beyond to the High Frontier to benefit all Mankind.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Route map in original German (Deutsch):
It’s no secret that there has been a resurgence in interest in space exploration in recent years. Much of the credit for this goes to NASA’s ongoing exploration efforts on Mars, which in the past few years have revealed things like organic molecules on the surface, evidence of flowing water, and that the planet once had a denser atmosphere – all of which indicate that the planet may have once been hospitable to life.
But when it comes to the future, NASA is looking beyond Mars to consider missions that will send missions to Venus, near-Earth objects, and a variety of asteroids. With an eye to Venus, they are busy investigating the possibility of sending the Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI) spacecraft to the planet by the 2020s.
Led by Lori Glaze of the Goddard Spaceflight Center, the DAVINCI descent craft would essentially pick up where the American and Soviet space programs left off with the Pioneer and Venera Programs in the 1970s and 80s. The last time either country sent a probe into Venus’ atmosphere was in 1985, when the Soviet probes Vega 1 and 2 both orbited the planet and released a balloon-supported aerobot into the upper atmosphere.
These probes both remained operational for 46 hours and discovered just how turbulent and powerful Venus’ atmosphere was. In contrast, the DAVINCI probe’s mission will be to study both the atmosphere and surface of Venus, and hopefully shed some light on some of the planet’s newfound mysteries. According to the NASA release:
“DAVINCI would study the chemical composition of Venus’ atmosphere during a 63-minute descent. It would answer scientific questions that have been considered high priorities for many years, such as whether there are volcanoes active today on the surface of Venus and how the surface interacts with the atmosphere of the planet.”
These studies will attempt to build upon the data obtained by the Venus Express spacecraft, which in 2008/2009 noted the presence of several infrared hot spots in the Ganis Chasma region near the the shield volcano of Maat Mons (shown below). Believed to be due to volcanic eruptions, this activity was thought to be responsible for significant changes that were noted in the sulfur dioxide (SO²) content in the atmosphere at the time.
What’s more, the Pioneer Venus spacecraft – which studied the planet’s atmosphere from 1978 until its orbit decayed in 1992 – noted a tenfold decreased in the density of SO² at the cloud tops, which was interpreted as a decline following an episode of volcanogenic upwelling from the lower atmosphere.
Commonly associated with volcanic activity here on Earth, SO² is a million times more abundant in Venus’ atmosphere, where it helps to power the runaway greenhouse effect that makes the planet so inhospitable. However, any SO² released into Venus’ atmosphere is also short-lived, being broken down by sunlight within a matter of days.
Hence, any significant changes in SO² levels in the upper atmosphere must have been a recent addition, and some scientists believe that the spike observed in 2008/2009 was due to a large volcano (or several) erupting. Determining whether or not this is the case, and whether or not volcanic activity plays an active role in the composition of Venus’s thick atmosphere, will be central to DAVINCI’s mission.
Along with four other mission concepts, DAVINCI was selected as a semifinalist for the NASA Discovery Program‘s latest calls for proposed missions. Every few years, the Discovery Program – a low-cost planetary missions program that is managed by the JPL’s Planetary Science Division – puts out a call for missions with an established budget of around $500 million (not counting the cost of launch or operation).
The latest call for submissions took place in February 2014, as part of the Discovery Mission 13. At the time, a total of 27 teams threw their hats into the ring to become part of the next round of space exploration missions. Last Wednesday, September 30th, 2015, five semifinalists were announced, one (or possibly two) of which will be chosen as the winner(s) by September 2016.
These finalists will receive $3 million in federal grants for detailed concept studies, and the mission (or missions) that are ultimately chosen will be launched by December 31st, 2021. The Discovery Program began back in 1992, and launched its first mission- the Mars Pathfinder – in 1996. Other Discovery missions include the NEAR Shoemaker probe that first orbited an asteroid, and the Stardust-NExT project, which returned samples of comet and interstellar dust to Earth.
NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft, the planet-hunting Kepler telescope, and the Dawn spacecraft were also developed and launched under the Discovery program. The winning proposal of the Discovery Program’s 12th mission, which was issued back in 2010, was the InSight Mars lander. Set to launch in March of 2016, the lander will touch down on the red planet, deploy instruments to the planet’s interior, and measure its seismic activity.
NASA hopes to infuse the next mission with new technologies, offering up government-furnished equipment with incentives to sweeten the deal for each proposal. These include a supply of deep space optical communications system that are intended to test new high-speed data links with Earth. Science teams that choose to incorporate the laser telecom unit will be entitled to an extra $30 million above their $450 million cost cap.
If science teams wish to send entry probes into the atmospheres of Venus or Saturn, they will need a new type of heat shield. Hence, NASA’s solicitation includes a provision to furnish a newly-developed 3D-woven heat shield with a $10 million incentive. A deep space atomic clock is also available with a $5 million bonus, and NASA has offered to provide xenon ion thrusters and radioisotope heater units without incentives.
As with previous Discovery missions, NASA has stipulated that the mission must use solar power, limiting mission possibilities beyond Jupiter and Saturn. Other technologies may include the NEXT ion thruster and/or re-entry technology.
Mars Pathfinder was NASA mission to Mars, which launched on December 4th, 1996 and landed on the surface of Mars on July 4, 1997. Unlike the missions that went before it, the Pathfinder lander was also equipped with a tiny rover called Sojourner, which could venture away from the lander, crawl around the surface of Mars and study rocks up close. It was a relatively inexpensive mission that tested out many of the technologies build into later missions, like the Mars Exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
The purpose of Pathfinder was to prove that the concept of “faster, better and cheaper” missions would work. Pathfinder only cost $150 million and was developed in under 3 years. It was also sent to study the surface of Mars, including the geochemistry of the rocks, the magnetic properties of the surface and the structure of the planet’s atmosphere.
When the Pathfinder mission arrived at Mars, it entered the atmosphere and deployed a parachute. Instead of using retrorockets to land gently on the surface, however, Pathfinder used an airbag system. This allowed it to save fuel; instead of landing gently, it was dropped from an altitude of about 100 meters onto the Martian surface. It bounced several times and came to a rest before opening up like the petals of a flower. Once everything checked out, the tiny Sojourner Rover was deployed onto the surface of Mars.
The area around the Pathfinder site had many rocks, large and small, and the NASA scientists gave them unique names like “Barnacle Bill” and “Yogi”. Sojourner was able to crawl around and study these rocks up close. It was able to study the chemical makeup of the rocks, and confirmed that they formed from past volcanic activity. Over the course of the entire mission, Pathfinder and Sojourner returned 16,500 images and made millions of measurements of the Martian atmosphere.
Pathfinder stopped communicating with Earth after 83 days on the surface of Mars. Its battery was only designed to be recharged 40 times, and once its battery stopped working, the spacecraft was unable to keep its electronics heated in the cold Martian night. After it stopped communicating, NASA decided to name the lander after Carl Sagan. It became The Carl Sagan Memorial Station.
Here’s a link to the original mission homepage for the Mars Pathfinder.
We’ve recorded several episodes of Astronomy Cast about missions to Mars. Start here, Episode 92: Missions to Mars, Part 1.