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Early this August, a historical event will occur. A rover launched last Thanksgiving weekend will descend via sky crane to the surface of Mars. After the first “six-minutes off terror,” the Mars Science Laboratory will be ready to do some serious science on the Red Planet.
The small SUV-sized Curiosity Rover is the mission that planetary scientists have wanted to fly for years. But it comes from a long lineage of missions and hard won victories in the history of the exploration of the Red Planet. In this week’s review, entitled Destination Mars: New Explorations of the Red Planet out from Prometheus Books, author Rod Pyle looks at the triumphs and tragedies that have occurred in the exploration of Mars. In 1964, Mariner 4 gave us our first look at Mars, and the romantic Lowellian vision of a noble but dying world vanished forever. The first grainy images revealed a cratered, dead world with a tenuous atmosphere, more like our Moon than the Earth. It was fascinating to read how those early scientists and engineers (many of whom were interviewed for the book) had to hand color those early images.
Hopes for Mars as a possible active abode for life were dashed until a surreptitious event occurred. In 1971, Mariner 9 arrived at Mars, becoming the first spacecraft to orbit another world. It also arrived during a planet-wide dust storm, which gave engineers an initially blank planet to look at. Two Russian landers, Mars 2 & 3, had the bad fortune to arrive at nearly the same time (The orbital geometry to launch a Mars mission from Earth occurs every 26 months). Each executed their automated landings and promptly failed. But as the dust cleared, Mariner 9 revealed something stunning; the peaks of three enormous volcanoes along the Tharsis Bulge. Further images revealed Mars like never before, including gullies and eroded stream beds. Clearly, Mars was inactive, but not yet dead.
The author then goes on to recount the successful US landings on Mars, with the twin Viking, Pathfinder, Spirit and Opportunity missions. Less visible but just as crucial have been the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, with its HiRISE camera, and Mars Odyssey, which entered Martian orbit in 2001 and has been returning stunning images from orbit longer than any interplanetary spacecraft to date.
The recent tale of Mars Phoenix is also a fascinating one recounted in the book. Resurrected from the mothballed Mars Surveyor program, Mars Phoenix was one of the first University run (as opposed to JPL) missions. The lander made some stunning discoveries, such as the existence of perchlorates in the sub-surface Martian ice at its landing site.
But exploration of Mars hasn’t been without its many failures. Beagle 2, The Mars Polar Lander, and Mars Observer were all claimed by the “Great Galactic Ghoul” along with every mission the Russians have ever mounted to Mars, including the recently ill-fated Phobos-Grunt.
Now is the time as we head towards another ground-breaking mission to pick up Destination: Mars for a great snapshot of the fascinating history of Mars exploration. All eyes will be on Gale crater the coming August, as the most sophisticated rover ever fielded by humans gets to work!