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Exploration of Mars

The exploration ofMarshas been an important part of thespace exploration programs of the Soviet Union, the United States, Europe, and Japan. Dozens of robotic spacecraft, including orbiters, landers, and rovers, have been launched toward Mars since the 1960s. These missions were aimed at gathering data about current conditions and answering questions about the history of Mars as well as a preparation for a possible human mission to Mars. The questions raised by the scientific community are expected to not only give a better appreciation of the red planet but also yield further insight into the past, and possible future, of Earth.

The exploration of Mars has come at a considerable financial cost with roughly two-thirds of all spacecraft destined for Mars failing before completing their missions, with some failing before they even begin. Such a high failure rate can be attributed to the complexity and large number of variables involved in an interplanetary journey, and has led researchers to jokingly speak of The Great Galactic Ghoul which subsists on a diet of Mars probes. This phenomenon is also informally known as the Mars Curse. As of January 2011, there is one functioning piece of equipment on the surface of Mars beaming signals back to Earth: the Opportunity rover.

In October 2009, an agreement was signed between United States' space agency, NASA, and Europe's space agency, ESA in order to increase cooperation and expand collective capabilities, resources and expertise to continue the exploration of Mars; this agreement is named the Mars Exploration Joint Initiative (MEJI).

The planet Mars

Mars has long been the subject of human fascination. Early telescopic observations revealed color changes on the surface which were originally attributed to seasonal vegetation as well as apparent linear features which were ascribed to intelligent design. These early and erroneous interpretations led to widespread public interest in Mars. Further telescopic observations found Mars' two moons - Phobos and Deimos, the polar ice caps and the feature now known as Olympus Mons, the solar system's tallest mountain. These discoveries piqued further interest in the study and exploration of the red planet. Mars is a rocky planet, like Earth, that formed around the same time, yet with only half the diameter of Earth, and a far thinner atmosphere, it has a cold and desert-like surface. It is notable, however, that although the planet has only one quarter of the surface area of the Earth, it has about the same land area, since only one quarter of the surface area of the Earth is land.

Launch windows

In order to understand the history of the robotic exploration of Mars it is important to note that minimum-energy launch windows occur at intervals of approximately 2.135 years, i.e. 780 days (the planet's synodic period with respect to Earth). This is a consequence of the Hohmann transfer orbit for minimum-energy interplanetary transfer. The slight inclination and eccentricity of Mars' orbit relative to Earth's orbit means that the minimum energy launch date differs from that implied by the synodic period slightly. Launch window width is subject to vehicle constraints but are typically on the order of one month wide. The windows for recent/future years were/will be centred on the following dates:

  • 18 November 1996 (MJD 50405)
  • 22 January 1999 (MJD 51200)
  • 19 April 2001 (MJD 52018)
  • 5 June 2003 (MJD 52795)
  • 10 August 2005 (MJD 53592)
  • 21 September 2007 (MJD 54364)
  • 15 October 2009 (MJD 55119)
  • 7 November 2011 (MJD 55872)
  • 2 January 2014 (MJD 56659)

Minimum energy inbound (Mars to Earth) launch windows also occur at similar intervals.

In addition to these minimum-energy trajectories, which occur when the planets are aligned so that the Earth to Mars transfer trajectory goes halfway around the Sun, an alternate trajectory which has been proposed goes first inward toward Venus orbit, and then outward, resulting in a longer trajectory which goes about 360 degrees around the Sun ("[http://www.sff.net/people/ckanderson/flight.htm opposition-class trajectory]").

Early flyby probes and orbiters

Early Soviet missions

The Mars 1M program (sometimes dubbed Marsnik in Western media) was the first Soviet unmanned spacecraft interplanetary exploration program, which consisted of two flyby probes launched towards Mars in October 1960, Mars 1960A and Mars 1960B (also known as Korabl 4 and Korabl 5 respectively). After launch, the third stage pumps on both launchers were unable to develop enough thrust to commence ignition, so Earth parking orbit was not achieved. The spacecraft reached an altitude of 120 km before reentry.

Mars 1962A was a Mars fly-by mission, launched on October 24, 1962 and Mars 1962B a lander mission, launched in late December of the same year both failed from either breaking up as they were going into Earth orbit or having the upper stage explode in orbit during the burn to put the spacecraft into the Mars trajectory.

Mars 1 (1962 Beta Nu 1) an automatic interplanetary station launched to Mars on November 1, 1962 was the first probe of the Soviet Mars probe program. Mars 1 was intended to fly by the planet at a distance of about 11,000 km and take images of the surface as well as send back data on cosmic radiation, micrometeoroid impacts and Mars' magnetic field, ra

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