Past Mars Missions: An International Affair


Marsnik-1 (Credit: NASA)

Attempts to explore the Red Planet have been marked by numerous failures, particularly in the first decade of the space age. What follows is a brief overview of the missions in chronological order. It shows the problems in space exploration and the perseverance of Russian, American, Japanese, European and Canadian researchers, who have been sending probes and devices to Mars for over 40 years.

The 1960s: Early Beginnings

1960: The first secret attempts

October 10 – The launch of Marsnik 1 takes the whole world by surprise, especially the United States. The space probe, secretly launched by the USSR, is designed to investigate interplanetary space and the long-term effects of a long voyage on spacecraft instruments. However, Marsnik 1 does not produce enough thrust at launch and fails to leave the Earth's atmosphere.

October 14 – Marsnik 2 is launched four days after its twin and is just as secret a mission. But the probe disintegrates as it leaves Earth's atmosphere.


Mars-1 (Credit: NASA)

Mariner 6 et 7

Mariner 4 (Credit: NASA)

Mariner 4

First close-up image of Mars, taken by Mariner 4. It shows an area of about 330 km by 1,200 km. The barely visible blurred area above the horizon to the left may be clouds. (Credit: NASA)

1962: The Soviets lead the way

October 24 – Sputnik 22, launched during the Cuban missile crisis, causes some concern in the U.S. The probe, intended to fly by the Red Planet and capture images of it, explodes as it goes into Earth orbit. Debris from the spacecraft remains in Earth orbit for a few days and decays in the atmosphere.

November 1 – The mission of the Russian probe Mars 1 is to fly by the Red Planet to capture images of its surface and transmit data on its atmospheric structure and cosmic rays. Halfway through the journey, communication with Mars 1 is lost. The probe now orbits the Sun.

November 4 – The ambitious Sputnik 24 is the first lander ever designed. But the USSR's attempt to manoeuvre it onto the proper trajectory fails and the spacecraft is lost. The  Ballistics Missile Early Warning System in the U.S. identifies spacecraft debris in the Earth's atmosphere.

1964: The U.S. is on board

November 5 – The United States joins the race to Mars with Mariner 3. The probe is one of a series of spacecraft intended to fly by the Red Planet, photograph it and study its environment. A malfunction at launch prevents the probe from separating from the launch vehicle and Mariner 3 cannot be put into its trajectory to Mars.

November 28 – On July 14, 1965, Mariner 4 succeeds in photographing Mars, returning the first close-up image of another planet. A total of 21 images are returned to Earth. The probe then studies Mars's cosmic environment. The Mariner 4 mission is terminated in 1967 because of damage resulting from a micro-meteor shower.

November 30 – Zond 2 is a Soviet orbiter with a variety of scientific instruments. After its launch, two solar panels fail to function. Although the setback does not put an end to the mission, problems persist for the probe: at mid-mission, communication is lost. Zond 2 continues its course after having flown by Mars.

1969: The first set of data is returned

February 24 and March 27 – Mariner 6 and 7 are NASA's second twin Mariner probes. These missions make it possible to examine the components of the Martian atmosphere and determine research parameters for extraterrestrial life. Mariner 6 and 7 return hundreds of images of Mars, including images of canals that for a long time were thought to have been developed by extraterrestrials. The new images from Mariner 6 and 7 show that these are natural geological structures.

March 27 and April 2 – Mars-69 521 and 522 are two Soviet orbiters which, upon reaching Mars, would deploy a landing unit to the planet's surface to photograph its environment. Unfortunately, both probes explode at launch, within a month of each other. This is the  first attempt by the Soviets at using proton rockets.

Mariner 7

These pictures of Mars were taken by Mariner 7 in 1969 on approach to the Red Planet. The circular feature in the upper-centre of the sphere is a 25-km high volcano. In 1969, it was believed that it was a meteorite impact crater. (Credit: NASA)

Mariner 6 et 7

Mariner 6 and 7 (Credit: NASA)

Mars-69 521 et 522

Mars 69 (Credit: NASA)