A flotilla of spacecraft was sent to Mars in 2003 – from Europe, Japan and the USA. NASA launched two craft – Spirit and Opportunity – on the Mars Exploration Rover mission.
Spirit was launched from Cape Canaveral on June 10, 2003, and Opportunity followed on July 7. Among their goals was to study rocks and signs of water.
In January the twin robot rovers landed in different regions of Mars to travel around and explore the terrain. You can see an artist’s impression of one, right.
Spirit came down in the 150 km (95 mile) wide Gusev Crater in the Ma’adim Vallis valley on January 4, 2004. It returned spectacular images before developing a computer fault on January 21. NASA solved the problem, caused by an overload of data.
Opportunity landed on January 25 in the Meridiani Planum region, scoring an interplanetary “hole-in-one” by ending up in a crater 20 meters (66ft) across and not far from another larger crater.
The two rovers’ initial missions were set at 90 days, but they vastly exceeded that and were still operating more than three years later. Opportunity continued exploring in 2007 despite nursing a broken robotic arm. Companion Spirit, in Gusev Crater, was soldiering on with a broken right front wheel which it had to drag through the martian soil. This “failure” actually helped provide one of Spirit’s greatest discoveries – further evidence that the planet was once a very wet place. In late 2007, the robust rovers showed that they had managed to survive one of Mars’s planet-wide dust storms.
Europe’s mission, Mars Express, was launched aboard a Suyuz-Fregat rocket on June 2, 2003, from Rusia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome. It arrived at Mars on December 26 and successfully went into orbit around Mars to scan the planet for information about its atmosphere, structure and geology. Days before its arrival, in December 2003, Express jettisoned a British lander called Beagle 2.
This rover, built and run by the Open University, was named after the first Beagle, a ship which carried Charles Darwin on his mission to explore uncharted areas of Earth in 1831. It was intended to look for evidence of water and life but no signal was received from the probe in the hours after it landed. There were fears that it crashed. However, in January 2015, it was revealed that the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter had found the landing site and imaged Beagle 2 and its jettisoned parachutes and rear cover. The probe appeared to have landed safely but only partially deployed.
Another probe due to arrive at Mars was the Japanese Nozomi (Planet-B) probe which was launched in July 1998 and was described on a previous page. It should have reached Mars in late December 2003 but failed after onboard equipment broke down.
In March 2006, a new NASA probe arrived, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, carrying the most powerful camera ever sent to another world. It can record objects as small as a dinner plate and has recorded images of previous Mars probes on the surface, including the two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. No sign of Beagle 2 was seen in high-resolution pictures of the landing site released in early 2007, but the probe was found later, as mentioned above, and the discovery announced in 2015.
In August, 2007, another NASA spacecraft, the Phoenix Mars Lander, blasted off to begin the biggest ever search for life on Mars. It landed safely in May 2008 and soon began digging into the Red Planet’s icy soil to look for evidence that the planet could ever have supported alien life. The probe, which sent back data for five months before freezing to death, gave us our first close-up pictures of water ice on Mars.
The next NASA mission to the Red Planet, Mars Science Laboratory, launched in November 2011. Also known as Curiosity, it made a dramatic safe landing, being lowered by a skycrane onto the surface of Gale Crater on 5 August 2012. Since then it has found evidence that the site was an ancient lake bed. A Russian probe, Phobos-Grunt, and China’s first Mars probe Yinghua-1, launched together from Baikonur the same month as Curiosity, but became stranded in Earth orbit before crashing back through the atmosphere.
In 2014, two further orbiters joined those already circling Mars. MAVEN – short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution – arrived in September just a couple of days before India’s first planetary probe, the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft, which is also known as Mangalyaan.
There was mixed success for a European orbiter/lander mission to Mars in 2017 as part of ESA’s ExoMars programme. Its Trace Gas Orbiter began circling Mars as planned on arrival in October 2017, to begin studying its atmosphere. But the companion lander, Schiaparelli, crashed after its descent engines cut out too early. The spacecraft was a test run for a rover to be planted on Mars in 2020, and engineers expect to learn from the failure.
A NASA mission, InSight, launched on May 5th, 2018, and landed successfully on November 26th to drill into the martian surface and detect quakes and learn more about the planet’s interior.
A new NASA mission, carrying a rover called Perseverance is due to launch on July 30 from the Kennedy Space Centre. With a similar design to Curiosity, but with advanced new experiments, Perseverance will carry the first helicopter to operate on another world. It is due to land in an ancient former lake, called Jezero crater, on February 18, 2021.
More about Mars
Mars represented the god of war for the Vikings, the Greeks and the Romans. In Assyria, it was known as the “Shedder of Blood”.