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.

3 Generations of NASA’s Mars Rovers

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NASA Mars rovers have come a long way in terms of size and capability since the rebirth of Red Planet surface exploration just 15 years ago – spanning from 1997 to 2012.

To get a really excellent sense of just how far America’s scientists and engineers have pushed the state of the art in such a short time – when the willpower and funding existed and coincided to explore another world – take a good look at the new pictures here showing 3 generations of NASA’s Mars rovers; namely Mars Pathfinder (MPF), the 1st generation Mars rover, Mars Exploration Rover (MER), the 2nd generation, and Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), the 3rd and newest generation Mars rover.

The newly released pictures graphically display a side by side comparison of the flight spare for Mars Pathfinder (1997 landing) and full scale test rovers of the Mars Exploration Rover (2004 landing) and Mars Science Laboratory (in transit for a 2012 planned landing). The setting is inside the “Mars Yard” at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. where the teams conduct mission simulations.

It’s been nothing less than a quantum leap in advancement of the scientific and technological capability from one generation to the next.

Sojourner - NASA’s 1st Mars Rover
Sojourner takes an Alpha Proton X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) measurement of Yogi rock after Red Planet landing on July 4, 1997 landing. Sojourner was only 2 feet long, the size of a microwave oven.
Credit: NASA

Just consider the big increase in size – growing from a microwave oven to a car !

The “Marie Curie” flight spare and the actual “Sojourner” rover on Mars are 2 feet (65 centimeters) long – about the size of a microwave oven. The MER rovers “Spirit and Opportunity” and the “Surface System Test Bed” rover are 5.2 feet (1.6 meters) long – about the size of a golf cart. The MSL “Curiosity” and the “Vehicle System Test Bed” rover are 10 feet (3 meters) long – about the size of a car.

Side view of Three Generations of Mars Rovers
Front; flight spare for the first Mars rover, Sojourner. Left; Mars Exploration Rover Project test rover. Right; Mars Science Laboratory test rover Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

With your own eyes you can see the rapid and huge generational change in Mars rovers if you have the opportunity to visit the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and stroll by the Mars exhibit with full scale models of all three of NASA’s Red Planet rovers.

At the KSC Visitor Complex in Florida you can get within touching distance of the Martian Family of Rovers and the generational differences in size and complexity becomes personally obvious and impressive.

NASA’s Family of Mars rovers at the Kennedy Space Center
Full scale models on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Curiosity and Spirit/Opportunity are pictured here. Sojourner out of view. Credit: Ken Kremer

All of the Mars rovers blasted off from launch pads on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity launched atop Delta II rockets at Space Launch Complex 17 in 1996 and 2003. Curiosity launched atop an Atlas V at Space Launch Complex 41 in 2011.

Three Generations of Mars Rovers with Standing Mars Engineers
The rovers are pictured here with real Mars Engineers to get a sense of size and perspective. Front rover is the flight spare for the first Mars rover, Sojourner. At left is a Mars Exploration Rover Project test rover, working sibling to Spirit and Opportunity. At right is a Mars Science Laboratory test rover the size of Curiosity which is targeting a August 2012 Mars landing. The Mars engineers are JPL's Matt Robinson, left, and Wesley Kuykendall. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Opportunity is still exploring Mars to this day – 8 years after landing on the Red Planet, with a warranty of merely 90 Martian days.

Curiosity is scheduled to touch down inside Gale crater on 6 August 2012.

So, what comes next ? Will there be a 4th Generation Mars rover ?

Stay tuned – only time and budgets will tell.