About Exploring Mars
Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun and the second smallest planet in our solar system. The iron-oxide prevalent on Mars gives the planet a reddish color. Iron-oxide is the same thing as rust! Because of this, Mars is often referred to as the "Red Planet." People really started to study Mars after the invention of the telescope in 1608. People have speculated for centuries about whether or not the environment on Mars could sustain life.
Is There Life on Mars?
NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) has sent satellites to explore the surface of Mars. One important goal of these missions is to look for signs of life. Scientists perform many experiments on the surface of Mars, trying to determine whether or not anything is, or has ever been, alive on Mars. So far, no life has been found. However, there has been some evidence found that may support the theory that, at some point in time, life existed on Mars. For one, there is a very large canyon on Mars. Canyons normally form from the forces of wind and water. If water did once flow through this canyon, then it is very possible life also once existed there.
Early Missions to Mars
There have been a total of 24 attempts to launch missions to Mars. Of those 24, only 16 have been successful. The Soviet Union was the first country to try to carry out a launch mission. They made five attempts before the United States made their first attempt in 1964. None of these early attempts were successful. Some failed on launch, while others were lost or malfunctioned after launch.
NASA successfully launched Mariner 4 on November 28, 1964. The photos it sent back were surprising to scientists. Scientists hoped to see signs of intelligent life. What they found was a planet that looked a lot like the Moon, except that it was red.
Other launches followed. Mars 2 and Mars 3 were sent by Russia in May 1971. A few days later, NASA launched Mariner 9.
Viking 1 and Viking 2
The very first spacecraft to land on Mars was Viking 1, which landed on July 20, 1976.
Viking 2 followed on September 3, 1976. Each spacecraft launched with its orbiter and lander attached to each other. When they entered Mars' orbit, the lander separated from the orbiter. Each lander ended up on a different area of Mars. Both crafts were armed with equipment designed to perform experiments. Those experiments included searching for life.
More Recent Missions
NASA launched the Pathfinder Sojourner on December 4, 1996.
The lander on Sojourner was unique. Rather than being stuck wherever it landed, it moved around like a remote-controlled car. This lander was therefore called a Rover. In 2003 and 2004, NASA launched two more rovers: Spirit and Opportunity. These rovers were constructed to actually be controlled by scientists on Earth. The rovers carefully moved around rocks and other obstacles. They were designed to constantly take pictures and record information that could be sent back to Earth. Scientists lost contact with Spirit in March of 2010, but Opportunity is still on the job!
On August 6, 2012, the Mars Curiosity rover landed on Mars.
Previously launched rovers were fairly small. However, Curiosity is the size of a car! It actually had to enter Mars' atmosphere via a specially designed platform/crane system. Curiosity's mission is to look for signs favorable to life, and the mission is expected to last 23 months. Check out the NASA video (above). It's awesome!
Our Future on Mars
Changing a planet to make it more like Earth is the science of terraforming. Scientists are diligently working on this task. They hope to soon have the technology and money to support human visits to Mars. Who knows? When you go on vacation someday, you just might be able to say that you're headed to the Red Planet!
Did you know . . .
- The diameter of Mars is about half the diameter of Earth.
- Mars has the biggest mountain in the solar system (Olympus Mons).
- The moon, Phobos, orbits Mars three times a day. It's the only moon discovered that orbits a planet faster than the planet turns.
- Mars has the largest, deepest canyon in the solar system. It's named the Valles Marineris.