Age-Old Obsession with Planet Mars Culminates in Multiple Missions

Age-Old Obsession with Planet Mars Culminates in Multiple Missions

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In an extraordinary confluence of events, three nations from three separate regions of the globe—the United States, China, and the United Arab Emirates —launched spacecraft headed for planet Mars within a 12-day period in July 2020. Earth and Mars were aligned perfectly for a complication-free trip during this window, and consequently the UAE’s orbiter probe Hope, China’s orbiter-rover Tianwen-1, and the United States’ rover Perseverance all began their long, arduous seven-month journeys to the ever-alluring red planet Mars at nearly the same time.

Illustration showing the landing event of NASA’s Perseverance on planet Mars on February 18, 2021. (JPL-Caltech / NASA)

NASA Planet Mars Landing Date Finally Arrives

Despite being the last of the three to achieve Mars orbit, the Daily Mail reports that the Perseverance will be the first to actually touch down on the Martian surface. On Thursday, February 18 2021, the Perseverance, a car-sized Mars rover specifically designed for this mission, will ascend through the Martian atmosphere at the scorching speed of 12,000 miles per hour, relying on its supersonic parachuting system to quickly decelerate and facilitate a soft and safe landing. The landing event is available to watch in a live video feed from NASA.

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Over the course of its two-year mission, the Perseverance will roam across the landscape of the crater Jezero, which was located at the bottom of a lake 3.5 billion years ago. The Perseverance will be collecting rock and soil samples from planet Mars for future retrieval by another rover, but will send back the results of its initial chemical analysis in real-time for immediate evaluation. The rover will also be taking tons of pictures and shooting miles of video footage of the surrounding geography, assisted by its high-flying drone-helicopter companion called Ingenuity.

Most notably, the Perseverance will be looking for signs of life on planet Mars, in the form of chemical elements, isotopes, or molecules that might have been produced by now-extinct microbes or other living creatures in the past. The Chinese Tianwen-1 rover will join the search for life when it touches down in May of this year, reports the Daily Mail , while the UAE orbiter named Hope will do its part by exploring the Martian atmosphere in an attempt to reconstruct its past and chart its evolution. As dead as Mars appears now, in the search for evidence of life, hope springs eternal.

Possible route planned for the Perseverance rover as it explores the Jezero Crater on planet Mars. (JPL-Caltech / NASA)

Planet Mars in Myth, History, and Science

This unprecedented exploratory triangulation of our neighbor planet is the culmination of a historic fascination with planet Mars that began centuries ago, in a past so distant that it tests the limits of our imagination. The ancient Babylonians probably weren’t the first people to note the presence of Mars in its skies. But they were the first society in recorded history to assign Mars a specific role in their cosmological or mythological constructs (in the third millennium BC). They identified this bright slowly moving object with Nergal, their god of war and conflict.

This set a pattern that was followed by others. The ancient Greeks also associated Mars with their god of war, Ares, and it was the Romans who actually labeled the planet “Mars” in honor of their god of war. Other ancient civilizations, including the Chinese, the Maya, and the aborigines of Australia , also watched Mars closely and pondered its meaning. They measured the regularity and predictability of its movements, and assigned it to a place in their mythologies based on what seemed to be indications of intelligent design or behavior.

The Maya, for example, associated the red planet with a supernatural being that scholars refer to as the “Mars Beast,” which in drawings was represented as a gigantic macaw-like creature with a long spiraling nose. The shape of this creature seemed to reflect the shape of Mars’s long periodic orbit through the Mayan skies, and it was seen as a watchdog or guardian that would protect the inhabitants of Earth from misfortune.

Among ancient aboriginal communities , identifications of Mars differed. Some groups claimed Mars was one of the Moon’s wives, while in other aboriginal stories Mars and Venus were said to be the eyes of an unimaginably vast sky creature that was watching developments on Earth carefully.

The ancient Greeks associated Mars with their god of war, Ares.

Scientific Study of Planet Mars

In 1610, Galileo ended the speculation about Mars’ true identity when he proved it was a separate and distinct planet, like Earth but with its own unique characteristics. Naturally, this invited speculation that the planet might be inhabited, and that Martians might be gazing at Earth and wondering about us at the same time we were looking up and wondering about them.

In the mid-1800’s, telescopic technology advanced to the point where it was possible to see the features of the Martian surface when it was at its closest approach. In 1877, Giovanni Schiaparelli , a famed Italian astronomer, made a drawing of the Martian surface based on his observations that captured the imagination of the public. His hand-drawn map portrayed the surface of Mars as complex and exceedingly Earth-like, with continents and oceans and straight lines he identified as canals.

It was Schiaparelli who inspired American astronomer Percival Lowell to build his own observatory in Arizona so he could launch a more extensive telescopic exploration of the Martian surface in the 1890s. Finding even more canals than Schiaparelli, Lowell became convinced that Mars was inhabited by skilled engineers who were busy transforming the surface of the planet to make it more green and fertile.

In the early 20 th century, advances in telescopic technology proved that Lowell had misidentified natural features, and that the ‘canals’ he saw was entirely in his imagination. NASA’s Mariner probes began arriving in Martian orbit in the 1960s, and the close-up pictures they beamed back proved once and for all that the Martian landscape was cold, arid, and dead, and wholly unsuitable for life.

Search for Companionship in a Lonely Universe

The latest scientific discoveries have confined many myths about Mars to the dustbin of history. But they haven’t ended our collective fascination with the planet, nor terminated our search for signs of life on its now-barren surface.

In the past, Mars had a much thicker and more chemically complex atmosphere. That atmosphere moderated temperatures enough to allow liquid water to flow and collect on the Martian surface. The current search for signs of past life on Mars is motivated by this knowledge, and modern planetary science has now become an ally in this search rather than its nemesis. The specific nature of our obsession with Mars, and the projections we make based on the convergence between its movements and characteristics and our belief systems, have changed radically over the centuries.

Our ardor for discovering the truth about Mars has not been dimmed by the passage of time, nor by our reliance on science rather than mythology as our guiding societal narrative. Ultimately, our determined quest to unlock the secrets of Martian history and comprehend its implications may be inspired by a deep-seated need to prove that we are truly not alone, in the universe or even in our own solar system.

Why We're Obsessed with Mars

It's easy to forget there was life believed to be on Mars 60 years ago.

Before the Mariner flybys in the 1960s, scientists thought Mars had water and life, even if it was just some sort of plantlike lichen.

"Mars' spectrum, its color in the near infrared, mimics that of vegetation. Back in the '50s and '60s, they concluded that was evidence of chlorophyll, and Mars had vegetation," said Josh Bandfield, a Mars expert and planetary scientist at the University of Washington.

And if there were plants believed to be living on the planet, well, it wasn't so far-fetched to invent invading aliens in pop culture, whether they were evil mind controllers ("Invaders from Mars") or goofy intruders with peculiar genetic defects ("Mars Needs Women"). Thanks to NASA, which has yet to find life on Mars, in present day it's humans who brave space, landing on a lifeless desert. From pulp fiction to literary thrillers, changing scientific knowledge of Mars has influenced the planet's place in art.

For scientists, dreams of life on Mars persist: When the Curiosity rover lands Sunday, Aug. 5, at 10:30 p.m. PDT (1:30 a.m. EDT, 0530 GMT),it will try to determine if Mars could support microbial life. [Full Coverage: Mars Curiosity Landing]

But absent little green men, what drives our culture's fascination with Mars?

Mars' mystique

"There was just enough of a possibility that Mars might be able to support an intelligent population that made it fascinating for masses of people," said Bob Crossley, emeritus professor of English at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and author of the book "Imagining Mars: A Literary History" (Wesleyan, 2011).

Yet Crossley, who is old enough to remember the era of Mars life, said there is more to the planet's mystique. "Somewhere deep in my own psyche, and maybe for other people as well, there is a desire for another world," he said. "For me, the deepest meaning of Mars is it represents some kind of longing for something outside ourselves, something outside our own world."

As one of our closest and most familiar neighbors, the Red Planet has served as the source of legends since the first storytellers slept under the stars. With its 24.6-hour day and snowy polar caps, Mars is really the only place that looks promising for life &mdash whether alien or an outpost for humans. In modern times, that makes it a perfect slate for allegories about human behavior, from the recently deceased sci-fi author and space visionary Ray Bradbury's critiques of American culture to Kim Stanley Robinson's sci-fi books on the ecological and sociological sustainability on Mars. [5 Mars Myths & Misconceptions]

Our interest in the past century has waxed and waned with the planet's proximity to Earth, said Bill Sheehan, a psychiatrist, amateur astronomer and author of the book "Mars: The Lure of the Red Planet" (Prometheus Books, 2001).

A close approach in 1956 coincided with fears of communism. During the 1950s, America was swept up in anti-communist paranoia provoked by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. "The increasing interest in Mars, and the general state of anxiety, almost panic, for the communist threat, was really the perfect recipe for an episode of alien hysteria," said Sheehan.

On the big screen and in books, because Mars was still thought to hold vegetal life, the planet was an unparalled source of evil scary monsters, ushering in some of the best and worst alien movies of the 1950s and 1960s. But writers such as Bradbury, who were critical of government policies, also commented via stories set on Mars. "It worked both ways, as a form of propaganda and cultural criticism," said Crossley.

Even though the 1964 film "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" might have been best left in the can, the volume of books and films produced during this era ensured Mars entered the public consciousness and never left.

Wax and wane

"The nature of people's interest in Mars has evolved in the last 50 or 60 years, but it's never entirely vanished," said Crossley.

In the 1960s, the early Mariner missions prompted a radical change in our relationship with Mars, when images showed an apparently dead, cratered planet.

"The flyby showed pictures of a very moonlike landscape, which had a staggering effect," said Sheehan. "It left people quite demoralized." NASA's expeditions may have killed some of the Red Planet's romanticism, Sheehan believes.

"The less defined an object is like Mars, the more evocative it is. We use it as a Rorschach to project our hopes and fears on to. As Mars becomes more explored, it becomes a more quotidian setting that no longer captures the imagination," Sheehan said.

After the Mariner missions, it took years before Mars again became a destination for humans in popular culture. These days, authors must tread carefully with reams of scientific data available for consumers who are feeling contradictory.

"Mars in popular culture today is in inseparable from the science of Mars," said Crossley.

Sheehan notes that big-screen farces like "Mars Attacks" and "Total Recall" may go down easily, but attempts to accurately recreate the Red Planet seem to bomb at the box office. Take "John Carter," a movie detailing what happens when a Civil War veteran is transplanted to the Red Planet: "That was one of the most disastrous movies of last summer," said Sheehan.

Nowadays, how does a movie producer (or NASA) drum up excitement about Mars when a teenager can virtually drive a rover across its rocky red dust?

For Erika Harnett, a space physicist who grew up on sci-fi stories, it&rsquos the tantalizing feeling that the reality of Mars is within reach.

"We understand Mars to a degree that we have not even come close to on any other planets or moons. I think what gets a lot of scientists excited is no different than what gets the public excited: the idea of when can we send people there, can we find life on Mars," said Harnett, a professor at the University of Washington.

The University of Arizona Press

For millenia humans have considered Mars the most fascinating planet in our solar system. We&rsquove watched this Earth-like world first with the naked eye, then using telescopes, and, most recently, through robotic orbiters and landers and rovers on the surface.

Historian William Sheehan and astronomer and planetary scientist Jim Bell combine their talents to tell a unique story of what we&rsquove learned by studying Mars through evolving technologies. What the eye sees as a mysterious red dot wandering through the sky becomes a blurry mirage of apparent seas, continents, and canals as viewed through Earth-based telescopes. Beginning with the Mariner and Viking missions of the 1960s and 1970s, space-based instruments and monitoring systems have flooded scientists with data on Mars&rsquos meteorology and geology, and have even sought evidence of possible existence of life-forms on or beneath the surface. This knowledge has transformed our perception of the Red Planet and has provided clues for better understanding our own blue world.

Discovering Mars vividly conveys the way our understanding of this other planet has grown from earliest times to the present. The story is epic in scope&mdashan Iliad or Odyssey for our time, at least so far largely without the folly, greed, lust, and tragedy of those ancient stories. Instead, the narrative of our quest for the Red Planet has showcased some of our species&rsquo most hopeful attributes: curiosity, cooperation, exploration, and the restless drive to understand our place in the larger universe. Sheehan and Bell have written an ambitious first draft of that narrative even as the latest chapters continue to be added both by researchers on Earth and our robotic emissaries on and around Mars, including the latest: the Perseverance rover and its Ingenuity helicopter drone, which set down in Mars&rsquos Jezero Crater in February 2021.

" Discovering Mars is the written equivalent of a Mars close approach. Through the authors' pooled perspectives, a reader sees the red planet morph from Babylonian Death Star into the navigable world of windblown dust that remains a focus for human aspiration. Onward to Mars!"&mdashDava Sobel, author of Galileo's Daughter

"This is a detailed history of exploration, to be sure. But, it&rsquos really about the passionate characters, the humans with their telescopes and robots, who have worked to know what goes on out there on this other world. As you read remember what we&rsquove discovered there over the last couple of centuries is amazing what we'll soon learn about Mars will be astonishing."&mdashBill Nye, The Planetary Society

" Discovering Mars details with a retrospective voice the history of humanity&rsquos obsession with The Red Planet, from the Babylonians to the modern. Sheehan and Bell expertly distill the history, science, and technology of planetary exploration into a refreshing deep dive into the realm of Mars research. It is a joy to read for both the curious observer and the planetary scientist alike."&mdashAmy J. Williams, University of Florida, and team member on NASA&rsquos Curiosity and Perseverance rover missions

"How is it that in over three-hundred years since astronomers first began to study it, Mars has had such a grip on the human imagination? Is it the dream of an Earthlike world that captivated the public in the decades before the space age? Or the geologic wonderland unveiled by robotic explorers, which even now tease out its amazingly complex history? Or is it the mounting evidence that Mars may have been&mdashand may yet be&mdashinhabited by microbes, a 'second genesis' of life in our solar system? As conveyed in Bill Sheehan and Jim Bell&rsquos remarkable saga, it is all these things. Read and understand why we will never be done with Mars."&mdashAndrew Chaikin, author of  A Man on the Moon  and  A Passion for Mars

&ldquoAs Sheehan and Bell explain in their introduction, it is the combination of their two angles of approach that allows this book to tell the whole story, and their work of collaboration and integration has given us this special achievement. Especially in this era of climate change, comparative planetology is a very important analytic tool for our civilization. And as Mars is the planet most like Earth by a long shot, studying Mars becomes useful to us, as well as beautiful. In that ongoing study, this book takes its part with distinction and flair.&rdquo&mdashKim Stanley Robinson, award-winning author of the Mars trilogy

&ldquo Discovering Mars provides a breathtaking panorama of the human quest to understand our neighboring planet, starting from ancient times, through the era of planetary astronomy from Galileo through the 1950s, and through the era of space missions, all the way to the 2020s. Authors Sheehan and Bell are the perfect pair to present this journey through time and space, from Sheehan&rsquos perspective as a science historian and philosopher, and Bell&rsquos perspective as a modern-day explorer leading the camera teams on NASA&rsquos rovers.&rdquo&mdashRoger C. Wiens, Los Alamos National Laboratory

&ldquoAn extraordinary chronicle of our centuries-old captivation with Mars, enticingly rich in detail &hellip Sheehan and Bell have penned a sweeping, immersive book that takes the reader right to the doorstep of modern exploration.&rdquo&mdashSarah Stewart Johnson, author of The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World

" Discovering Mars is destined to become the gold standard of books on Mars. Authoritative, factual, and easy-to-read, this book takes the reader on a breath-taking ride to our neighbor in space, the Red Planet. It is a must-read for anyone who wants to know about Mars."&mdashMichio Kaku, author of The God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything

"A fascinating, full-spectrum survey, told by two of the elect among Mars chroniclers, of how inhabitants of the solar system&rsquos pale blue dot have peered at, flown around, probed into, ridden over, pondered, and repondered the system&rsquos bright red dot. An indispensable source for Mars enthusiasts."&mdashStephen J. Pyne, author of The Great Ages of Discovery. How Western Civilization Learned About a Wider World

"Bill Sheehan and Jim Bell lead an exhilarating voyage to understand Mars. The journey is as much about human imagination and eccentricity as it is about scientific data and observation, and the team of Mars historian Sheehan planetary scientist Bell expertly show the way. Never has armchair exploration been so provocative!"&mdashKevin Schindler, Lowell Observatory historian

Pre-Council Times (c. 68,000 BCE - 500 BCE)

c. 48,000 BCE: Fall of the Protheans

The Prothean Empire collapses with the arrival of the Reapers through the Citadel. Although the Protheans had learned of the Reapers' existence from studying the ruins of previous civilizations and had begun to prepare, they were nonetheless caught off-guard. Over the next several centuries, the Protheans fight the Reapers system by system, world by world, and city by city. In the end, it is not enough. The Reapers methodically wipe out the remaining Protheans, as well as other contemporary races, and depart the galaxy to await the next cycle.

The turians of Palaven begin to develop civilization around this time.

Seeking to escape the imminent explosion of their sun, an alien race constructs an AI-managed starship equipped with supercomputers containing a virtual world, into which some one billion of the aliens transfer their consciousnesses. The starship begins a journey throughout the galaxy which lasts for the next 8,000 years.

Tuchanka, the krogan homeworld, enters the nuclear age. In a global conflict, weapons of mass destruction are released, triggering a nuclear winter. In the resulting devastation, krogan society devolves into a collection of warring clans.

A supernova propels the Mu Relay, the only point of access to the remote Pangaea Expanse, out of position. Concealed somewhere in the dense nebula formed by the supernova, the relay's position is effectively lost for centuries. Later, the rachni rediscover the relay.

In the Andromeda galaxy, the angara are created and seeded across multiple worlds in the Heleus Cluster by the Jardaan.

After developing faster-than-light spacefaring capabilities based upon Prothean technology, the asari begin to explore the mass relay network, and eventually discover the huge Citadel space station at a hub of many mass relays.

The salarians discover the Citadel and open diplomatic relations with the asari.


The 27 Club includes popular musicians, artists, actors, and athletes who have died at age 27, [2] often as a result of drug and alcohol abuse or violent means such as homicide, suicide, or transportation-related accidents. [3] The deaths of several 27-year-old popular musicians between 1969 and 1971 led to the belief that deaths are more common at this age. Statistical studies have failed to find any unusual pattern of musician deaths at this age, comparing it to equally small increases at ages 25 and 32, with a 2011 BMJ study noting instead that young adult musicians have a higher death rate than the rest of the young adult population, concluding: "Fame may increase the risk of death among musicians, but this risk is not limited to age 27". [4] [5] [6]

The "club" has been repeatedly cited in music magazines, journals and the daily press. Several exhibitions have been devoted to the idea, as well as novels, films and stage plays. [7] [8] [9] [10] There have been many theories and speculations about the causes of such early deaths and their possible connections. Four years before the BMJ study was published, Cobain and Hendrix biographer Charles R. Cross wrote: "The number of musicians who died at 27 is truly remarkable by any standard. [Although] humans die regularly at all ages, there is a statistical spike for musicians who die at 27." [11]

Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison all died at the age of 27 between 1969 and 1971. At the time, the coincidence gave rise to some comment, [12] [13] but it was not until Kurt Cobain's 1994 death, at age 27, that the idea of a "27 Club" began to catch on in public perception. [11] Blues musician Robert Johnson, who died in 1938, is the earliest popular musician who has been included in the members of the 27 Club. [14]

According to Hendrix and Cobain's biographer Charles R. Cross, the growing importance of the media—Internet, magazines, and television—and the response to an interview of Cobain's mother were jointly responsible for such theories. An excerpt from a statement that Cobain's mother, Wendy Fradenburg Cobain O'Connor, made in the Aberdeen, Washington, newspaper The Daily World—"Now he's gone and joined that stupid club. I told him not to join that stupid club."—referred to Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison dying at the same age, according to Cross. [15] Other authors share his view. [16] On the other hand, Eric Segalstad, writer of The 27s: The Greatest Myth of Rock & Roll, assumed that Cobain's mother referred to the death of his two uncles and his great-uncle, all of whom had also committed suicide. [17] According to Cross, the events have led a "set of conspiracy theorists [to suggest] the absurd notion that Kurt Cobain intentionally timed his death so he could join the 27 Club". [11]

In 2011, seventeen years after Cobain's death, Amy Winehouse died at the age of 27, prompting a renewed swell of media attention devoted to the club once again. [18] Three years earlier, she had expressed a fear of dying at that age. [19]

An individual does not necessarily have to be a musician to qualify as a member of the 27 Club. Rolling Stone included television actor Jonathan Brandis, who committed suicide in 2003, in a list of "members" of the 27 Club. [20] Anton Yelchin, who had played in a punk rock band but was primarily known as a film actor, was also described as a member of the club upon his death in 2016. [21] Likewise, Jean-Michel Basquiat has been included in 27 Club lists, despite the relative brevity of his music career, and his prominence as a graffiti artist and painter. [22]

A study published in the British Medical Journal in December 2011 concluded that there was no increase in the risk of death for musicians at the age of 27. Although the sampled musicians faced an increased risk of death in their 20s and 30s, this was not limited to the age of 27. [4] [6] A 2015 article in The Independent also provided statistical evidence that popular musicians are not more likely to die at the age of 27. [23]

Opportunity: NASA Rover Completes Mars Mission

Drive along with NASA&rsquos Opportunity Mars rover and hear the voices of scientists and engineers behind the mission. Designed to run for 90 days, the exploration spanned more than 15 years from 2004 to 2019. Along the way, it discovered definitive proof of liquid water on ancient Mars and set the off-world driving record.

For more information on the Mars Exploration Rovers and all of NASA&rsquos Mars missions, visit

- We have positive confirmation of a safe landing.

- We're seeing it on the LCP.

John Callas: Opportunity hit a hole-in-one when she landed. The airbag system rolled into this small crater called Eagle crater. And when the rover first turned on its cameras, it saw that the rim of this small crater was lined with exposed bedrock.

Steve Squyres: So, we took out our microscope for the first time and we took a picture and the surface of Mars at that location is littered with an uncountable number of little round things.

Abigail Fraeman: . that were called blueberries because they looked like blueberries in a muffin. What we discovered was that those are features that form in water and they were a really definitive sign that there had been liquid water on the surface of Mars some time in the past.

Callas: You know, after we left Eagle crater we went to Endurance crater and that's the crater we drove down in. And there we did the what the geologists call an in sequence stratigraphic section, which is essentially reading the chapters of the Martian history book in reverse order.

Matt Golombek: That rover became a stratigrapher. First time we had a stratigrapher on Mars. We knew we wanted to go after Endurance to Victoria.

Callas: We put the pedal to the metal, and we started heading there, tens of kilometers away. We had to literally surf across these dunes of windblown material, and the rover got stuck in one of those. We had to get the rover unstuck. What we found is the best way to get it out is just to put it in reverse and gun it. The rover eventually popped out. And, so we changed our driving strategy. So we recognized these ripples as hazards. We get to this giant half-mile diameter crater &mdash Victoria crater &mdash and we want to figure out, "Gee, how can we go into this thing?"

Golombek: All of a sudden, we got HiRISE images. We could see the rover in the image.

Squyres: That was the very first image that we got from space showing one of our rovers.

Golombek: We spent a year scouting the edge of that crater to decide where we wanted to go in to get the best stratigraphic section.

Callas: We found a place to go in, and we drove down in and we spent about a year inside Victoria crater.

Heather Justice: The science team was really excited about the idea of driving to Endeavor Crater. over 20 km away. This is a long drive to do. It was gonna take multiple years, but they decided to do it anyways.

Callas: There were too many of these dangerous ripples in our way, and we actually had to take this circuitous route that at times took us away from the crater only to then cut back and then approach it more directly.

Justice: And then we pull up to Endeavor crater and all of a sudden there's all these new things to look at.

Fraeman: We first discovered the Homestake vein. It was this very, very bright linear feature. It turns out that it was a big gypsum vein, and we see these gypsum veins now all over. So, it was our first taste of what is a really important process on Mars.

Justice: We were driving to a valley and along the way there we realized that right about the point where we were about to get to this valley, that was when we were gonna cross the marathon mark. So we said, "well, that's cool, we're just going to name this valley after that, call it Marathon Valley." That was when we reached the distance of a marathon, 26.2 miles, on another planet. We continued driving through some slopes down, a little bit on the interior of the crater rim until we came back out so that we could continue onto the next valley, Perseverance Valley.

Golombek: . where the rover was exploring when we lost contact.

Fraeman: We said, "We're gonna operate this vehicle until the day where we can't," and that's exactly what we did, and I'm really proud.

Callas: We've set a foundation that will serve as the basis for future exploration.

Mars and the Public Imagination

The year 2015 was a very good one for NASA's solar-system exploration program. The New Horizons mission swept past Pluto, revealing a much more complex and varied world than had been expected. The Dawn spacecraft orbited the dwarf planet Ceres, revealing a number of enigmatic bright spots whose nature is still being debated. And the Curiosity rover continued its trek across Mars, its explorations culminating in the announcement, in late September, of evidence that liquid water flows on Mars today, though that particular finding has since been disputed.

Each of these events, which were extensively covered in the press, aroused great public interest on social media. The Red Planet has stayed in the public eye, thanks largely to the popularity of The Martian, which—although a fictional movie—included a lot of input from NASA.

The Martian: Real Science Becomes Reel Science
The announcement of water on Mars happened to coincide with the release of The Martian, a science-fiction movie strongly grounded in real science, which has grossed more than $593 million worldwide. If you didn't catch it in theaters, it's now available for digital download, and will be released on DVD this month.

In early December, I attended an event at NASA's Johnson Space Center as a guest of Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, distributors of The Martian. The event highlighted NASA's advisory work on the film, the attention to scientific detail, and the NASA technologies that may one day take astronauts on a real journey to Mars, many of which appeared in the movie. For example, I got to ride in a Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV), the prototype for a rover that astronauts could drive across the Moon or Mars. The event also included panel and roundtable discussions with astronaut Drew Feustel and The Martian producer Aditya Sood of Genre Films, with Jim Green, Director of NASA's Planetary Science division, calling in on Skype.

The Martian's director, Ridley Scott, and its creative staff consulted extensively with NASA to ensure the scientific accuracy of the film, and Dr. Green was a chief contact. One surprising thing about The Martian is that the movie, as well as the book on which it was based, found broad appeal among the general public despite its heavy reliance on real science as a tool for solving problems. Said Sood, "I gave the book to my wife, who you could not pay enough money to read a science-fiction book, and I think she read the book faster than I did."

In an email, Jason Kendall, an astronomer at William Paterson University, reflected on the film's popularity extending beyond science-fiction fans. "The audience is much broader because the story is very broad," he wrote. "Standard run-of-the-mill sci-fi doesn't have mass appeal because the stories are not necessarily universal. People want stories about people. The Martian gives that, and, interestingly, shows it in the context of smart people in teams working together as they really would be doing."

It doubtless helped that The Martian is set in the near future, just 20 years from now. "Science fiction is incredibly important part of our culture," Jim Green said. "It allows us to dream…. to think ahead. A key aspect of The Martian is that it's just around the corner. Indeed, the realities seen in the movie and in the book are accessible to us."

The Martian is based on the book of the same name by Andy Weir. "I discovered Andy's book when it was still a self-published ebook on Amazon and I fell in love with it," Sood said. "I immediately called the studio and said 'you have to option this right away before anyone else reads it.'"

Current interest by the entertainment industry in Mars goes beyond The Martian, and will likely expand due to the film's success. On Dec. 7, Spike TV announced that it has contracted to bring Red Mars, a 10-episode adaptation of Kim Stanley Robinson's award-winning Mars trilogy of novels, to TV. The novels chronicle the exploration (starting in 2026), colonization, and eventual terraforming of Mars (making its climate more Earth-like).

NASA's Road to Mars
In 2010, NASA announced its intention for a manned mission to Mars, and recently fleshed the plan out with more details. It is currently in the first of three phases: "Earth Reliant," in which NASA uses the International Space Station (ISS) to study the effects of long-term space travel on the human body. NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko are most of the way through the Year in Space study, in which they are spending more than 11 months aboard the ISS. When the mission is over, the two countries will share their data. Other studies such as 3D printing and communications systems tests are a part of this phase.

The second phase, "Proving Ground," will feature tests of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift vehicle coupled with the Orion capsule, construction of a new deep space habitat, and an unmanned mission to retrieve a small asteroid and bring it to lunar orbit, where it can be studied. Much of the activity in this phase will take place in cislunar space (the vicinity of the Moon). There may well also be missions to the lunar surface to test technologies for use on Mars.

The third phase, "Earth Independent," will feature human missions to Mars, perhaps first to Martian orbit and to its moons, followed by landings on the planet itself. This would happen in the 2030s.

It's great to have long-term roadmap to Mars, but keeping it on track is the real challenge. NASA's InSight Mars lander, which had been scheduled to launch next March, has been delayed until 2018 due to a defective seismometer. Along with technological issues are political and economic considerations. A long-term space mission plan must survive several Presidential administrations and Congresses, and varying budget climates. Congressional support is crucial, and so is public support of NASA's mission and plans.

When I spoke to Andy Weir, he was pessimistic about a human Mars mission happening by the 2030s, as was the case in his book. He said it may be closer to 2050, citing a lack of faith in Congress's will to fund such a mission. Ironically, I had barely gotten off the phone with him when it was announced that in the 2016 budget, Congress was allocating more money to NASA than the Obama Administration had requested, and more than in the previous year, the bulk of it going to manned spaceflight initiatives that will help lay the groundwork for a mission to Mars. Congress has mandated that NASA develop a prototype deep-space habitat by 2018. But Weir's concern is warranted, as sustaining the funding and government support for space missions is far from guaranteed. Missions and programs have been canceled before, most notably the final 3 Apollo Moon flights and the Constellation program to return to the Moon.

Public enthusiasm is important to help maintain Congressional backing for NASA's mission, and people, young and old, are actively working to promote public interest in travel to Mars. One of the participants at our Johnson Space Center event was Abigail Harrison, an 18-year-old Wellesley student better known by her social media handle "Astronaut Abby," who wants to be the first person to set foot on Mars.

She befriended astronaut Luca Parmintano, who invited her to attend his launch from Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS in 2013. In order to fund her trip, she turned to the Internet for donations, but determined that some of her proceeds would go to speaking publicly of her experiences, inspiring others to follow their dreams, and furthering her own dream to go to Mars. Out of this grew The Mars Generation, a nonprofit dedicated to educating people about the importance of deep-space exploration and inspiring young people to get involved in space and STEM. It provides scholarships to Space Camp to science-minded young people who can't afford to go on their own, and encourages young people to sign up as Student Space Ambassadors to share their love of space with their communities.

I asked Abby how individuals, and America as a nation, can work to maintain focus on a Mars mission as a worthy objective, regardless of the political and budgetary climate. "It is vital that we find a way to maintain public interest, and therefore funding and support," she responded. "It will take a shift of cultural values to create long-term excitement about Mars exploration. This is why the work of nonprofits like The Mars Generation or Buzz Aldrin's ShareSpace Foundation is so important. By exciting, educating, and inspiring today's youth about human space exploration, we are creating a generation that understands the importance of (and values) space exploration and the benefits it brings to society."

Still going strong at 85, Buzz Aldrin—the second man to walk on the Moon—has been a vocal proponent of the colonization of Mars. He has devised a plan for humans to colonize Mars by 2039 (detailed in his 2013 book Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration. The plan involves two spacecraft called cyclers continuously shuttling back and forth between Earth and Mars while transporting people and equipment. Aldrin presented his Mars colonization plan to Congress in early 2015. His ShareSpace Foundation works to get young people involved in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, medicine, and the arts: Buzz is a strong supporter of incorporating "arts" into the classic STEM equation), and Mars is a particular topic of enthusiasm.

NASA's Embrace of Social Media
For its part, NASA has done a masterful job in using the Web, and social media, to inform the public of its programs and progress. Nearly all of its facilities, programs, missions, and astronauts have at least one and often multiple social media feeds, primarily Facebook and Twitter but also YouTube, Google+, Flickr, and more. It's a rare day that I don't see at least one NASA-related story trending on Facebook and/or Twitter.

I asked John Yembrick, NASA's Social Media Manager, what the agency's social media goals were. "Our social media goal is simple: Make people care about space exploration," he said. "Every day we work to not only post the most compelling discoveries coming out from NASA, but also do it in a way that is relatable to the public. We feel that NASA can connect with everyone on the planet. It's a matter of getting the agency's content in front of people."

NASA also invites members of the public, chosen by lottery, to attend launches and other space-related events. Participants in these "NASA Socials" are encouraged to share their experiences on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media.

"When we host in-personal social media events, such as a NASA Social, or an interactive engagement event with NASA astronauts, engineers and scientists, we help turned casual followers into space enthusiasts," said Yembrick. "These 'NASA ambassadors' help tell our story for us to their own friends and followers, and this can have a powerful impact on awareness of what NASA is up to."

Other Mars Initiatives
NASA isn't the only one with an eye on the Red Planet. China and the European Space Agency (ESA) have expressed a long-term intent to send humans to Mars, with the ESA perhaps teaming with Russia. India has put an unmanned spacecraft in orbit around Mars.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX (formally, the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) as well as Tesla Motors has long stated that his ultimate goal is to establish a human colony on Mars. In January 2015, SpaceX opened a Seattle-area office to build communication satellites. Musk has suggested that the experience and revenues from this initiative could be used to further his plans to colonize Mars.

Mars One is a controversial initiative by a Dutch nonprofit to send a series of crews on a one-way journey to Mars to colonize that world. The number of candidates has been reduced from at least several thousand (more than 200,000 people had expressed interest, if not formally applied, through the Mars One website) to 100, with a further cut down to 24 (six crews of four astronauts each) yet to be made. The date for the first crewed landing has been pushed back from 2023, the date given when the project was announced in 2012, to 2027. The manned landings—expected to be made in SpaceX Falcon Heavy rockets with Dragon capsules—would be preceded by several unmanned missions, to deploy a communications satellite, test a Mars lander, find a spot for the colony, and deliver supplies in advance of the first landing.

Mars One would be partially funded by reality TV-style coverage of the mission. Critics have charged that the plan is financially unfeasible and the timetable is far too optimistic. An MIT study suggested that were the crew to grow crops within their habitat, as they planned, the plants' oxygen production would exceed fire safety limits, necessitating the continuous introduction of nitrogen. When the nitrogen—which is also needed to maintain air pressure in habitable areas and compensate for inevitable leakage—ran out, the habitat would slowly depressurize and the astronauts would eventually die. Alternatives, such as sending all needed food from Earth, may be more promising.

The Age-Old Lure of Mars
Throughout history, humanity has been fascinated by the planet Mars. Glowing a deep orange, Mars rises from obscurity every 2.2 years to become one of the brightest objects in the sky. Due to its fiery color—which has earned Mars its nickname the Red Planet—numerous cultures have named Mars after their god of war, or associated Mars with fire and war. (It actually owes its ruddy color to iron oxide in its soil essentially, the planet is slowly rusting.)

During Mars's relatively close passage to Earth in 1888, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli made drawings of Mars that showed narrow, straight lines, which he deemed canali, or channels. It was widely mistranslated as canals. Other astronomers also started seeing these lines and incorporating them in their drawings. One of them, Percival Lowell, built the observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona that bears his name, and at which Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930.

The so-called canals spawned a mythos of a dying, increasingly desert-like Martian civilization channeling water from the poles to green areas that were believed to be vegetation. Fed by the notion that Mars could be a habitat for intelligent life, it became a popular subject in science fiction. H.G. Wells's 1898 novel of a Martian invasion of Earth, The War of the Worlds, caused a public panic when it was turned into a radio play by Orson Welles in 1938 and some listeners thought that we were really being attacked by Mars. Stories of Mars were a staple of the golden age of pulp science fiction magazines in the 1920s and 1930s.

When Mariner 4 flew by Mars in 1965, its pictures revealed a cratered wasteland with no trace of canals. Subsequent spacecraft have shown a complex and varied world, with huge shield volcanoes (Olympus Mons is the largest volcano in the solar system), deep gashes such as Vallis Marineris, and evidence of ancient water flow. The first successful Mars landers (Viking 1 and 2) touched down in 1976, and they have been followed by rovers, with Curiosity detecting signs of ancient seas and rivers.

Science fiction novels and movies continue to be made about Mars, though the focus has largely shifted from finding intelligent alien life to survival on a harsh desert world.

The Red Planet Beckons
NASA is gearing up for the push to Mars by bringing on more astronauts. The space agency recently put out the word that it would be seeking astronaut applicants, its first such call in 4 years. "This next group of American space explorers will inspire the Mars generation to reach for new heights, and help us realize the goal of putting boot prints on the Red Planet," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a statement accompanying the announcement.

I asked astronaut Drew Feustel, veteran of two Space Shuttle missions including the final Hubble Space Telescope repair mission, where on Mars he would want to go, especially considering he was trained as a geologist. Rather than name a specific location, he described some of the attributes "The ideal place to land is somewhere that you get a broad range of the geological spectra. Craters, gouges, or gorges usually expose a lot of different layering. Somewhere that looks like it might be structurally or tectonically active is important as well, just to have a feel for the processes. On Mars, I think we would be interested in landing where we think there are sources of water, or moisture, or resources. You'd really want an area that would expose a lot of rock, have those potential sources of water, and maybe have some evidence for potential past life, so maybe rivers or streambeds."

When it is that we actually get to Mars, and where we explore, is an open question. Many steps still lie ahead, but we are developing the technology to get there, and for now at least, we have the will. The continuing support of Congress as well as the general public is key to America sticking to that objective. As long as NASA continues to effectively relate its findings and goals to the public, nonprofits help to inspire our youth, and writers and filmmakers envision a future that seems almost with reach, I'm confident that I'll be around to witness and blog about at least the first wave of human exploration of the Red Planet.

I'm a Retired Female Astronaut and I Can't Understand the Obsession With 'Gender Diverse' Space Crews

O n Tuesday August 21, Vice President Pence chaired the sixth meeting of the recently revived National Space Council, a group originally chartered in 1958, disbanded in 1993 and then revived under the current administration to help chart the direction of America&rsquos activities in space. There were four guest panelists highlighted at the end of the session. One spoke about nuclear power and nuclear thermal propulsion for spaceflight one spoke about in situ resource utilization on the Moon and Mars and one spoke about planetary exploration, the Dragonfly mission to Saturn&rsquos moon Titan in particular. All were interesting and appropriate topics for a meeting whose topic was, well, the future of space exploration.

And then there was Saralyn Mark, an M.D. and specialist in gender-based medicine, who spoke about gender bias. Her main point: NASA needs to &mdash no kidding &mdash realize there are gender differences because sending &ldquogender diverse&rdquo crews to Mars is going to be difficult. At least I think that was her point. It was frankly hard to listen to because enough already!

We&rsquove been sending gender-diverse crews to space since 1983. We&rsquove had women do every job a man does in space. Every one. Space walks? Check. Shuttle commander? Check. Space Station commander? Check. Record for long-duration flights? Check. So what&rsquos going to be the new gender-bias thing NASA needs to start &mdash start? &mdash paying attention to?

Oh I could tell you tales from bygone days of the male engineers’ original ideas of clothing and hygiene products for women astronauts. I was working as an engineer at NASA then in the human factors and cockpit design group. And I was there to support our first women in space, but we are talking the late 󈨊s, early &lsquo80s. By the time I flew in space in the &lsquo90s, those things had changed they&rsquod evolved, emerged, progressed and been accommodated for. By then a crew member was just a crew member. The same is true today. They get what they need physically, personally and emotionally to support them in spaceflight. Not a big deal. So why the continued insistence on making it a big deal?

And why keep bringing up the NASA-doesn&rsquot-make-a-spacesuit-that-fits-a-woman story? The truth behind the cancellation last April of the &ldquoall-female spacewalk&rdquo was that it was a woman&rsquos call! After doing her first spacewalk, Anne McClain realized that the task on the next one would require a longer arm reach than she had. Sure, they could have redesigned the choreography for that spacewalk, taken the time and the effort to delay the mission, replan and retrain for it. “But why?” she said. Let crewmate Nick Hague do it &mdash he&rsquos trained and he has a longer reach. Need a different tool to get the job done? Go to the toolbox and get a different tool.

It was never the crew&rsquos idea to do an all-female spacewalk in the first place. They are all professional, trained, hardworking, no-nonsense crew members. That&rsquos teamwork at its finest, not a defeat for womankind. Nothing to see here.

Dr. Mark&rsquos big pitch is that diversity demands attention, especially in situations like a long space flight during which people have to understand their differences and get along. Well, what about six men and women on the Space Shuttle or the International Space Station representing multiple nationalities, different ethnicities and religions, and &mdash in their home countries &mdash competitive political ideologies? That’s not diverse enough for you? NASA has been doing this quietly and efficiently and without fanfare for the better part of the past 36 years.

After Dr. Mark&rsquos testimony, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine once again mentioned how inspired his 11-year old daughter would be to see women taking leadership positions in space exploration. Well, Mr. Bridenstine, your agency has had women in leadership roles on and off the planet far longer than you have held your current position. And there have been women astronauts living, working and leading on spacecraft decades longer than your daughter has been alive. Why is she not inspired by that?

I fully support the goal of landing American astronauts on the moon and on Mars. I will be proud to wave that flag. Because that&rsquos the only flag we should be waving.

Why the quest for life on Mars continues despite 35 failed missions since 1960s

Surface of Mars captured by the Perseverance rover | Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/AS

Bengaluru: In the past month alone, three missions from Earth reached planet Mars to look for signs of past life — the UAE’s first interplanetary mission, the Hope orbiter, China’s first Mars mission, the Tianwen-1 orbiter and the US’ complex Perseverance rover.

These missions, as is the case with all missions to Mars, are primarily astrobiological in nature and aimed towards hunting for signs of past life, habitability and evolution of the planet from Earth-like conditions to the cold desert it is at present.

To date, a total of 49 missions to Mars have been launched since the 1960s and almost 35 of them have been failures. And yet, missions to the Red Planet continue to be planned due to the immense scope of knowledge that remains to be gleaned from it about our existence and evolution.

Missions to the planet are launched every couple of years because of a time period known as the launch window or launch period. Once launched, these missions land on Mars a few months later.

For instance, all three missions mentioned earlier were launched in July 2020 and arrived at the planet in February this year.

What is a launch window?

A primary objective when it comes to launching a spacecraft is to get it to its target destination while consuming minimum fuel. The optimal time for such a launch is when a launch window opens up, as explained below.

To ensure that a mission succeeds in reaching its destination, a flight path called the Hohmann transfer orbit is followed. This orbit is around the Sun and is elliptical in shape, just like planetary orbits, and the Sun is the focus of this ellipse.

Launch occurs when the Earth is at perihelion or the closest point to the Sun in the orbit, and arrival occurs after the spacecraft has travelled halfway through the orbit, meeting Mars at the aphelion or the farthest point from the Sun.

The Hohmann transfer orbit | Credits: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

This is the most energy-efficient path a spacecraft could take and engineers always use variations of the Hohmann transfer orbit to launch to Mars.

The time to optimally launch, when it would take the spacecraft the least time to reach Mars, occurs every 26 months or 780 days due to the nature of the orbits of the two planets — Earth takes 365 days to revolve around the Sun while Mars takes 687.

So spacecraft are launched in 26-month intervals — Mangalyaan and MAVEN launched in November 2013, ExoMars in March 2016, Insight in May 2018, and the latest three missions in July 2020.

This is the reason why the Hope mission, Tianwen-1, and Perseverance launched the same month and also reached Mars the same month. The next optimal time to launch will occur in September 2022.

This period for launch is known as the launch period, often also referred to as the launch window. The launch window, technically, is the time period in a given day during the launch period that the spacecraft must be launched from earth.

About the Red Planet

Missions to Mars are typically astrobiological or geological in nature.

This is because the planet is believed to have harboured conditions similar to that on Earth, which means it could have been habitable to life, in the past — billions of years ago.

Additionally, since plate tectonics stopped moving very early on in the planet’s history, two-thirds of the Martian surface is over 3.5 billion years old.

Thus, Mars could hold unhampered evidence of ‘prebiotic’ conditions or conditions before the emergence of life, irrespective of whether life emerged there.

This is especially important considering Mars is geologically older than Earth, even though both planets were formed of the same material and are close to each other.

Mars formed 4.6 billion years ago, while Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago. Thus, if any life existed in the past on the Red Planet, it is likely to have been forming as early as 4.48 billion years ago, around the same time as on Earth, though direct evidence of life on Earth dates back only to 3.7 billion years ago.

Today, Mars is a cold arid desert, with an average surface temperature of −63 degrees Celsius, and is bathed in radiation from the Sun as it has no atmosphere.

This is because after the planet lost its magnetic field, it eventually lost its atmosphere in a slow process called Jeans escape — when the solar wind (ionised particles from the Sun) started to strip its atmosphere and caused gases started to just drift off into space thanks to its low gravity (one-third of Earth’s).

Jeans escape | Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

The surface of the planet is red in colour due to the presence of iron oxide and contains other volatiles, or elements that can immediately vaporise, such as sulphur and chlorine. The rocks on the surface were formed from magma, due to volcanic activity, which has since ceased on the planet.

The planet is home to many extinct or inactive volcanoes, including Olympus Mons, which is the solar system’s tallest volcano.

Mars also has two moons, Phobos and Deimos, which are irregularly shaped.

Internally, Mars is similar to Earth. It has a differentiated interior, which means that there is a core, mantle, and crust. The core is made up of iron and nickel, and there is at least an outer core that is liquid.

Earth’s liquid core spins and produces a geodynamo effect, creating a protective magnetic field around our planet. However, the Martian core, much smaller in size, cooled rapidly and is spinning a little too slowly to be able to sustain its previous protective magnetic field.

Due to the lack of atmosphere and magnetic field, the planet has lost its protective properties, and any life it might have held in the past — if it did — is thought to have disappeared. However, there is a very unlikely chance that microbial life could be surviving deep underground, in reservoirs of subsurface water or lakes.

Since the atmospheric pressure on the surface of Mars is only 1 per cent of the Earth’s, water cannot exist as a liquid on the surface. However, during the warmest months of the year, salty water flows in some regions, as it can exist as a liquid even below the freezing point of water.

Mars’s two permanent polar ice caps consist of both water ice and carbon dioxide ice or dry ice.

Mars in the past

Astrobiologically speaking, liquid water gets scientists excited like nothing else, and for good reason. It is thought to be a crucial and necessary ingredient for life as we know it.

Since it’s a liquid, water can move materials needed for chemical reactions around as well as enable a flow of nutrients. It stays liquid over a wide range of temperatures and pressures and acts as a universal solvent — dissolving more substances than any other liquid.

When water freezes as ice in water bodies, it’s only the top layer that freezes (as ice floats), and the liquid underneath remains warmer, thus helping preserve habitable conditions. This has preserved and enabled life on Earth in the past during its multiple ice ages, which marine fauna have survived.

The presence of liquid subsurface water on moons like Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus is the reason why there is extreme curiosity around these bodies and future missions are planned to these destinations.

Underground lakes of water have also been discovered on Mars, which hold promise for potential exploration.

Mars is thought to have held liquid water on the surface in the past, as evidenced by surface formations like plains and outflow channels on the Martian soil, which could have been carved only by flowing water.

There are multiple sites on the planet that hosted water in the past, including the Gale crater which is being explored by Curiosity and the Jezero crater, where Perseverance is currently situated.

Jezero Crater as seen by ESA’s Mars Express Orbiter: | Credits: ESA/DLR/FU-Berlin

Mars also has organic compounds beneath the surface that are very similar to the kind of molecules found in Earth’s soil.

Additionally, past missions have also confirmed the presence of methane in the atmosphere seasonally, likely trapped in ice and released during summers, much like from the Siberian permafrost in Russia.

Methane is released by either biological processes (from both microbial life and larger plants and animals on Earth) or geological processes, both of which are currently not present on Mars from what we understand of the planet.

The gas may not even be actual evidence of past life, but it does give an insight into early Mars, which was warm, with a temperature-regulating atmosphere, organic-rich and had flowing liquid water on the surface — all of which are similar to Earth.

While Mars is not geologically active and there is no flow of magma or plate tectonics, it is still seismically active, producing mysterious marsquakes, which probably occur because of the planet shrinking from cooling and fracturing the brittle outer crust.

Current Mars missions and their objectives

There are currently two active rovers on the planet, both from NASA — Curiosity and Perseverance.

Curiosity is currently exploring the Gale crater, an ancient lakebed that contains records of water flow in its rocks. The rover is studying the area’s climate and geology as well as investigating the habitability of this region.

Perseverance is based on the design of Curiosity as well, although it is much more sophisticated with several additional cameras and the first two microphones. Perseverance is a fully astrobiological mission, studying the Jezero crater, another ancient lakebed, for habitability and signs of past life.

NASA’s Perseverance rover just before it hit the surface of Mars| Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

There is also the stationary robotic lander, InSight, NASA’s stationary robotic lander that studies the deep interior of the planet and records marsquakes.

There are eight orbiters currently studying the planet: NASA/JPL’s Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and MAVEN European Space Agency’s Mars Express the ESA/Roscosmos collaboration ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission (Mangalyaan), Chinese CNSA’s Tianwen-1, and UAE Space Agency’s Hope orbiter.

These orbiters study the planet’s atmosphere, scout for signs of methane, study the effects of solar radiation, the Martian geology, planetary evolution, climate, the presence of liquid water and hunt for evidence of past life.

Future on Mars

There are several future missions planned to Mars, including India’s Mangalyaan-2 orbiter, which is set to launch in 2024. India’s first mission was a technology demonstrator but the second is likely to be scientific in nature with more payloads and complex science objectives.

In 2022, the EU-Russian collaborative Kazachok lander/ Rosalind Franklin rover and Japan’s Tera-hertz Explorer (TEREX) mission that consists of an orbiter and rover, will launch.

Japan also plans to send the Martian Moons Exploration (MMX) orbiter in 2024.

Apart from government agencies, there are also private missions that may fly to Mars soon. These include SpaceX’s unconfirmed Starship demo mission, which will carry both a lander and cargo. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has indicated that humans could fly to Mars within the next decade as well.

However, transporting humans to Mars and keeping them alive there is no easy task. There are immense difficulties to overcome such as protection against the intense radiation both during the journey to Mars as well as on the surface, lack of liquid water and the extremely cold temperatures.

Since Mars is so far away and trips can be planned only every 26 months, there is also an increased risk of safety, lack of emergency access and the psychological and sociological effects of isolation. The latter include symptoms like anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, fatigue, sleep disorder, inability to focus and irritability.

Additionally, spaceflight and low gravity also induce physiological problems including loss of muscle mass and bone mass, slowdown of cardiovascular system due to low gravity, and other psychosomatic stresses that manifest as physical symptoms including motion sickness, which can trigger vertigo, headaches, nausea and lethargy. Astronauts have also experienced weakness and lowered aerobic capacity or oxygen intake.

Spaceflight and low gravity also enable microbes to grow more virulent, as evidenced by experiments on the International Space Station (ISS). This can cause more severe diseases, which can put human settlers on the planet at risk.

Humans will also need a power supply, oxygen, vehicles to move around, radiation-proof living habitats, and the ability to derive drinking water from existing ice on the planet.

Furthermore, before going to the planet, humans first have to ensure that the planetary protection criteria are met. This refers to preventing contamination of any possible life on Mars by life from Earth — microbial or otherwise, which is mandated by an international treaty called the Outer Space Treaty, and all countries that are party to the treaty have to follow protocol.

As a result, sites with water and water ice first need to be confirmed to hold no life before humans can access them. Carefully disinfected robotic missions are likely to go to these regions first while the missions to collect samples simultaneously work on the planet before human missions are approved to Mars.

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But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.

ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.


The Planetary Missions Program Office was established in late 2014 as part of a series of changes implemented by NASA after the passage of the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2015, which allocated US$1.438 billion to planetary missions, and the Obama administration's request for the 2016 United States federal budget. [1] The program office is a replacement for the Discovery and New Frontiers Program Office, established in 2004, [2] and occupies their former headquarters at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. [1] [2] The Planetary Missions Program Office took control of the Discovery and New Frontiers program, along with the Europa Mission and NASA contributions to the European Space Agency (ESA)'s JUICE mission, in a then-unnamed program outside of Discovery and New Frontiers. [1] In 2017, the program was named the "Solar System Exploration Program", [3] and grew to include NASA's surviving DART component of the cancelled AIDA mission, after ESA terminated their contribution to the mission in late 2016. [4] [5]

Discovery Edit

The Discovery program was established in late 1990 as a program of low-cost, limited-scope solar system exploration missions, succeeding the objectives of the Planetary Observer program. [6] In the late 1980s, leaders at NASA opted towards expensive, more ambitious missions to advance their objectives. This included the Space Exploration Initiative by the George H. W. Bush administration, which laid out a plan to construct Space Station Freedom and establish a human exploration program to the Moon and Mars. [7] Consistent cost overruns and lack of support from the United States Congress, however, created a trend towards smaller, less ambitious missions. [7] [8] NASA's Solar System Exploration Division (SSED) initially proposed to model a new program of small-class unmanned missions after the Planetary Observer program, though members were skeptical, due to the budget problems plaguing the Planetary Observer program at the time. [6] It was decided instead to base it on the Explorer program, following advice from Explorer administrative staffer Tom Krimigis. [6] Under this model, the program gained support from then-NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin, and the program was formally approved by Congress in 1992. [6] [8]

Originally a Planetary Observer program mission, NEAR Shoemaker was reassigned to the Discovery program, after the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Applied Physics Laboratory found that the mission was possible to execute on a budget smaller than originally planned. [6] Its final mission cost would reach US$224 million. [9] Mars Pathfinder was also reassigned to the program as part of cuts to the Space Exploration Initiative Mars Environmental Survey (MESUR) program, following the loss of its flagship Mars Observer. [10] [11] Both NEAR Shoemaker and Mars Pathfinder were successfully launched in February and December 1996 respectively [12] [13] [14] the former achieved orbit around the asteroid 433 Eros in February 2000, [13] and the latter landed on Mars and delivered the first operational Mars rover, Sojourner, to the surface of the planet in July 1997. [14] After NEAR Shoemaker and Mars Pathfinder, the Discovery program began selecting its future missions from proposals from third-party institutions, in competitions named "Announcements of Opportunity" (AOs). [15] [16] Twelve missions have been selected through AOs, with the latest, reconnaissance missions Lucy and Psyche, selected in January 2017 after a three-year long competition. [17] [18] [19] The Discovery program also presides over "Missions of Opportunity" (MOs) to develop instruments for non-NASA missions, such as the ASPERA-3 instrument onboard ESA's Mars Express and the M 3 instrument aboard ISRO's Chandrayaan-1. [20] MOs were originally selected in competitions alongside AOs, [21] though have been selected in "Stand Alone Mission of Opportunity Notices" (SALMONs) since 2009. [22] SALMON-3 is currently underway to select NASA's contribution to JAXA's Martian Moons Exploration mission. [23]

  • NEAR Shoemaker – launched 1996, completed – flyby and orbital reconnaissance of 253 Mathilde and 433 Eros. [24]
  • Mars Pathfinder – launched 1996, completed – EDL and rover technology demonstration on Mars. [25]
  • Lunar Prospector – launched 1998, completed – surface composition, gravity, and magnetic field study of the Moon. [26]
  • Stardust – launched 1999, completed – sample return from the coma of Wild 2. [27]
  • Genesis – launched 2001, completed – sample return collecting solar wind particles. Sample return capsule crashed on impact. [28]
  • CONTOUR – launched 2002, failed – flyby reconnaissance of three comets failed on launch. [29][30]
  • MESSENGER – launched 2004, completed – orbital reconnaissance of Mercury. [31]
  • Deep Impact – launched 2005, completed – impact-flyby reconnaissance of Tempel 1. [31]
  • Dawn – launched 2005, completed – orbital reconnaissance of 4 Vesta and 1 Ceres. [32]
  • Kepler – launched 2009, completed – discovery and observation of new exoplanets. [33]
  • GRAIL – launched 2011, completed – gravitational field study of the Moon. [34]
  • InSight – launched 2018, operational – seismology and geology study of planet Mars. [35]
  • Lucy – launching 2021, future – flyby reconnaissance of one main belt asteroid and six Jupiter trojans, including a binary system. [17][18]
  • Psyche – launching 2022, future – orbital reconnaissance of 16 Psyche. [17][18]
  • VERITAS – launching 2028, future – orbital reconnaissance of Venus. [36][37]
  • DAVINCI+ – launching 2029–2030, future – Venus atmospheric probe. [36][38]

New Frontiers Edit

The New Frontiers program is the successor to the cancelled Outer Planet/Solar Probe (OPSP) program, a project which aimed to launch the Europa Orbiter astrobiology mission, the Pluto Kuiper Express reconnaissance mission, and the Solar Orbiter heliophysics mission. [39] [40] To reduce the growing costs of the OPSP, the Pluto Kuiper Express was cancelled in 2000 by then-Science Mission Directorate Edward J. Weiler, who subsequently accepted proposals for a replacement mission and modelled the competition after the Discovery program's AOs. [41] [42] The New Horizons mission was chosen to replace Pluto Kuiper Express in the OPSP program in November 2001, [43] [44] though the entire program, including the Europa Orbiter, New Horizons, and Solar Probe, was cancelled by Administrator of NASA Sean O'Keefe in February 2002, shortly after his appointment by President George W. Bush. O'Keefe cited a need for a restructuring of NASA and its projects, falling in line with the Bush Administration's wish for NASA to refocus on "research and development, and addressing management shortcomings." [45]

The New Horizons team successfully lobbied for the funding and development of their mission, appearing at the top of the National Research Council's Planetary Science Decadal Survey for 2003–2013. [41] [42] Weiler and then-Solar System Exploration Division Director Colleen Hartman established the New Frontiers program in 2003 to help fund and launch New Horizons and future proposals from the Decadal Survey. [42] New Horizons was launched as the program's first mission on January 20, 2006, [46] [47] and successfully performed the first reconnaissance of Pluto and its moons in July 2015. [48] [49] [50] An extended mission is underway to observe Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), including a flyby of 486958 Arrokoth in January 2019. [51] [52] In the first New Frontiers AO, Juno, a mission to investigate the interior of Jupiter, was selected over the MoonRise lunar sample return mission. [53] [54] [55] [56] Juno launched on August 5, 2011, and arrived at Jupiter in July 2016. [57] [58] In May 2011, the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission was selected over MoonRise and SAGE for the program's third mission. [59] [60] OSIRIS-REx launched on September 8, 2016, and will arrive at the Near-Earth object (NEO) 101955 Bennu in August 2018. [61] [62] [63] The program's fourth mission is Dragonfly, which will launch in 2026 and arrive on Titan in 2034. [64]

  • New Horizons, launched 2006, operational – flyby reconnaissance of Pluto and Kuiper belt objects. [44]
  • Juno, launched 2011, operational – interior and magnetosphere study of Jupiter. [55][65]
  • OSIRIS-REx, launched 2016, operational – orbital reconnaissance and sample return from 101955 Bennu. [60]
  • Dragonfly, launching in 2027, future - arriving to explore the surface of Titan in 2034. [66]

Solar System Exploration Edit

In late 2014, the Solar System Exploration program was established alongside the Planetary Missions Program Office to "execute prioritized planetary science." [1] [3] The first planned mission of the program is DART, an asteroid deflection test targeting 65803 Didymos scheduled to launch in 2020 or 2021. [5] [67] Originally a component of AIDA, DART ' s impact was intended to be observed by ESA's AIM orbiter, which would continue to study Didymos from orbit. [68] [69] However, the ESA Council at ministerial level cancelled the AIM mission in favour of funding for the ExoMars 2020 rover, citing budget concerns. [70] [71] Despite the cancellation of AIM, NASA committed to their original plan, opting to continue solely with DART. [5] Two Europa astrobiology missions are scheduled in the Solar System Exploration program. The Europa Clipper is scheduled to launch in the early 2020s on the inaugural cargo flight of the Space Launch System. [72] [73] The ESA JUICE mission to study Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto will utilize the NASA-built, Solar System Exploration Program-funded Ultraviolet Spectrograph (UVS) and parts of the Particle Environment Package (PEP) and Radar for Icy Moons Exploration (RIME) instruments. [74] [75]