The Soviet Union was the first nation to attempt
the robotic exploration of Mars, but they suffered numerous
setbacks in eight attempts. At best, the Mars 3 probe managed
to transmit from the surface for 90 seconds in 1971, the rest
of the probes were lost enroute for various reasons.
The American probe Mariner 4 was the first successful probe
to Mars, achieving a flyby in 1965. Mariner 4 returned 22 images
of the surface, revealing a world pockmarked by craters like
our own moon and finally putting to rest any notion that that
planet might harbour a civilisation of canal builders. The 1971
Mariner 9 probe expanded on the work of Mariner 4 when it became
the first spacecraft to go into orbit around Mars, imaging amongst
other things the giant volcanoes of the red planet.
Viking 1 touched down on the western slopes of
Chryse Planitia on July 20, 1976, the first successful landing
on Mars. It was a spectacular success and followed soon after
by Viking 2, which achieved touchdown on September 3,
1976 in the region of Utopia Planitia. Both probes returned stunning panoramic
images of the surface. Though quipped with robotic arms designed to dig up samples
of the Martian surface for analysis, neither probe returned any conclusive proof of life.
A new first in Martian exploration was achieved
on July 4th 1997 with the landing of the Mars Pathfinder mission
bearing with it the Sojourner Rover, a plucky little machine
that trundled about the Martian surface, scrutinizing nearby
rocks in what was then an incredible feat of engineering.
The Sojourner rover was to be a trailblazer for the two probes
presently at work on the Martian surface. Spirit (landed January
4th 2004 ) and Opportunity (landed January 24th 2004) have far
exceed their expected working lifetimes and are continuing to
return amazing images and science. At the same time a European
probe called Mars Express is returning the most spectacular
pictures of the planet ever captured from orbit. More probes
are planned, including a sample return mission, and then the
next chapter in the exploration of Mars can then begin, with
the dispatch of the first humans to visit the red planet.
For now that is just a dream of the mission planners,
but the possibility of life existing even now on Mars at a microbiological
level is a great enticement to send human explorers, and who
knows, they might yet also find evidence that Mars was once
home to higher forms of life.
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