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Monday, 6 December, 1999, 11:52 GMT
Mars: Mission impossible?
Twin peaks: The Martian landscape captured by Pathfinder Twin peaks: The Martian landscape captured by Pathfinder


By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

The first mission to Mars was attempted by the former Soviet Union - it was a disaster.

1964: The first image of Mars 1964: The first image of Mars
The Soviets, flushed with the success of their Moon missions, had turned their attentions towards the Red Planet. But in October 1960, two Mars probes failed to leave the Earth's orbit.

A couple of years later they tried again but things were hardly better. Two more Mars probes were launched but only one left Earth-orbit and was then lost.

By 1964, the Americans had got in on the act. The US Mariner 3 failed to reach Earth orbit but Mariner 4 made it to Mars. Following a fly-by, it sent back the very first close-up pictures of the planet.

Mars Missions
1960. USSR. First Mars missions fail.
1964. US. First image from Mariner 4 fly by.
1971. USSR. First touch down on the planet but no images.
1976. US. Viking spacecraft touch down, take pictures and sift soil.
1986. USSR. Probe to a Martian moon fails.
1993. US. Mars Observer spacecraft is lost.
1997. US. Very successful Mars Pathfinder mission.
1998. US. Mars Global Surveyor begins amassing pictures.
1998. Japan launches a tiny Mars probe.
1999. US. Mars Climate Observer and, probably, Mars Polar Lander lost.
The images clearly showed craters and atmospheric haze around the limb of Mars. The planet appeared to be an ancient Moon-like world and, at a stroke, hopes that it might harbour life were crushed. The Soviets also tried to reach Mars in 1964 but again lost contact with their Zond probe.

It was five years later, in 1969, when spaceprobes were next sent out towards the Red Planet.

The US Mariner 6 became the second successful Mars flyby mission. It flew south of the Martian equator and saw craters, mountains and desert-like features. Two dozen images were taken and, from a distance, the Martian South Pole was glimpsed.

Mariner 7 followed taking 33 pictures. Mars was a desert world and, as many had suspected, the 'canals' that had been drawn criss-crossing its surface a century before turned out to be an illusion. There were no Martians, at least none that were larger than microbes.

The USSR launched two more Mars probes in 1969, both failures. Their next opportunity to launch a Mars probe was in 1971 and this time the Soviets were determined not to fail.

The USSR Mars 2 and 3 probes were the first man-made objects to touch down on the planet. Their mother craft went into orbit but no pictures were obtained. The USSR said it was because of a dust storm but in reality both probes had crashed.

Extinct volcano, Olympus Mons, imaged by Mariner 9 Extinct volcano, Olympus Mons, imaged by Mariner 9
The US Mariner 9 in 1971 and sent back some spectacular pictures, especially of the planet's giant extinct volcanoes.

In 1973, the USSR tried to send four probes to Mars but, continuing their poor form, all failed.

1976 was a vintage year for Mars Exploration. Two US Viking spacecraft touched down, took pictures and sifted the soil for signs of life. They found examples of unusual chemistry but no life.

Mars was then left alone for many years. Then, in 1986, Soviet attempts to send a probe to one of the tiny Martian moons failed and in 1993 it was the turn of the US to experience disappointment with the loss of the Mars Observer spacecraft that was due to orbit the Red Planet.

The rover used by Sojourner The rover used by Sojourner
1997 saw the landing of the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft in the Ares Vallies outwash plain. It was a spectacularly successful mission that used a tiny rover, Sojourner, to scuttle over the surface and nudge and rocks.

Last year, the Mars Global Surveyor arrived at Mars and began amassing a stunning catalogue of pictures. Japan also launched a tiny probe towards the planet.

But 1999 has been a bad year. A few months ago, an embarrassing mix-up over English and metric units caused the Mars Climate Observer spacecraft to burn up, rather than go into orbit.

And now Nasa is close to losing all hope of ever recovering the Mars Polar Lander.

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See also:
06 Dec 99 |  Sci/Tech
Options running out for Mars team
11 Nov 99 |  Sci/Tech
Orbiter loss blamed on 'silly mistakes'
06 Oct 99 |  Sci/Tech
Evening clouds on a Martian volcano
04 Oct 99 |  Sci/Tech
Hopes of Mars oceans dry up

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