Martian horror story

As it’s Halloween it felt appropriate to consider times when Mars has given us the heebie jeebies. For example, there are the stories the media goes nuts over, such as a spooky face or an alien lizard. However, for those capable of rational thought the real drama and fear lies in the challenge of sending missions to another world.

Imagine you are an engineer or planetary scientist and you’ve spent years developing and testing your instruments and the spacecraft they’re going to fly on. Your whole career may be hinging on strapping a billion dollar spacecraft to a giant rocket and firing it into deep space without it exploding, malfunctioning or missing your destination. Today NASA is pretty well practised at delivering landers and rovers to the surface of Mars without any major horror stories. In the Seventies it was a totally different story as no one had landed before, but observations from orbiting satellites showed lots of exciting features that suggested Mars had been an active world for a significant part of its history. Scientists knew that there weren’t advanced Martian civilisations on the planet but no one was sure whether there might be macroscopic or microscopic life present that could only be seen by visiting the surface

As with so many other firsts in space exploration the Soviet Union got to the surface of Mars before America. It’s from these Soviet missions that our horror story arises. After several failed attempts the twin probes Mars 2 and Mars 3 reached Mars in late 1971. Mars 2 was the first to enter the atmosphere and promptly malfunctioned and crashed, but it still became the first man made object to land on Mars. Mars 3 went one better and achieved the first ever soft landing. The joy and relief for those behind the mission must have been immense. To be the first team to land a spacecraft successfully on Mars is an incredible achievement. Mars 3 began to collect data but then everything stopped working…after 20 seconds. All the potential success and science that had seemed so close was suddenly wiped out. The lander had begun to return an image but there was not enough time for the first photo ever taken on Mars to be sent back. Instead that honour would go to the American Viking 1 lander in 1976.

Working in space science is a tough business and you need to be prepared for your life’s work to explode or fail in a very public way. If you happen to be around a scientist or engineer when their mission is flying make sure to offer them the drinks, cake or hugs that they will sorely need.

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