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Review: How many missions to Mars have been undertaken so far?

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NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover landed on the red planet recently. It was launched on 30 July 2020 under Mission Mars 2020, exploiting the closest approach phenomenon. But how many countries have launched a mission to Mars? How many of them have been successful? Here are all the details.

The geographical & other conditions in Mars are in proximity with that of Earth which has resulted in speculation that there is a possibility of life on the red planet. Mars is a little more than half the Earth’s size with a gravity of only 38% that of Earth. Roughly, the land area in Mars is equal to the area of continents on Earth. Scientists have also suggested that there must have been a vast ocean in Mars’ northern hemisphere. Some other visible features on Mars may be that of ancient flowing liquids such as river valleys, streams, deltas, and basins, according to Mars experts. 

Distance between Mars and Earth is the least once every 26 months

Approximately once every 26 months, the Earth and Mars are aligned such that the distance between the two is the closest. It is during this period that many Mars missions have taken place as the time of travel and hence expenditure will be the lowest. Hence, most Mars missions are launched about every two years during this period. The last time Mars made its closest approach to Earth was on 06 October 2020. The next Mars Close Approach is 8 December 2022, when the Red Planet will be only 62.07 million kilometres away from Earth. 

NASA’s Perseverance landed in Mars

A rover is a vehicle used for exploring the surface of a planet or moon. NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover that landed on the red planet recently was launched on 30 July 2020 under Mission Mars 2020, exploiting the closest approach phenomenon. The key objectives of the 2020 mission are to seek signs of ancient life and collect samples of rock and regolith (broken rock and soil), for returning to Earth, if possible. Perseverance rover has landed on the Jezero Crater, where it will explore the delta of a river that once flowed into the lake that the crater held once upon a time. The sediments are a promising place to look for fossil chemical signatures of ancient Martian microbes. NASA has also released the video of the landing.

The next mission of NASA to Mars, known as Mars Sample Return, has been planned for 2022 during the next closest approach. Under the Mars Sample Return mission, as the title suggests, an effort will be made to bring samples of Martian rocks and soil collected by Perseverance back to Earth for research purposes. 

Dozens of spacecrafts have been sent to Mars since 1960s

Since the 1960s, dozens of spacecrafts have been sent to the red planet. Initial missions mainly comprised of flybys and spacecraft that snapped many photos of Mars as they zoomed past the planet. With advancements in science and technology, later probes entered the orbit of Mars. Now, landers and rovers have landed on the Mars surface. However, only about 60% of these missions were successful. 

Many other countries have begun Mars exploration in addition to the US and Russia

Between 1960 and 1996, the US and USSR (and later Russia) were the only countries that had attempted to set out on Mars missions. In fact, of the total 48 missions recorded so far, the US and USSR (Russia) account for 43 of them. Besides these two countries, only India, China, Japan, UAE, and European Space Agency have carried out Mars missions. While Japan launched its mission in 1998 and Europe launched in 2003, the remaining three carried out their missions only after 2010. 

The details of the missions of countries other than the US and Russia are;

In 1998, Japan had attempted to send an orbiter, Nozomi, to Mars to study its upper atmosphere. Japan was the first country other than the US and Russia to send a spacecraft to Mars. But the mission failed due to fuel issues. Though the mission was unsuccessful, the spacecraft provided crucial information about the deep space environment. 

Later, in 2003, the European Space Agency sent the Beagle 2 lander to the Mars Express Mission which was released from its mothercraft in December 2003. But nothing was heard from the lander after its scheduled touchdown. 

China’s Yinghuo-1 and the Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft were launched together in 2011. Yinghou-1 was not only China’s first Mars orbiter but also China’s first interplanetary mission. Phobos-Grunt that was sent to study Mars’ moon and send back soil samples to Earth was Russia’s first interplanetary mission since the failure of the Mars 96 mission. However, this mission was unsuccessful due to a spacecrafts’ defect. 

In 2013, India created history by becoming the first Asian country to have reached the Martian orbit. India also became the first country to have successfully entered Martian orbit in its maiden attempt. India’s Mars Orbiter Mission was sent to explore Mars’s surface features, morphology, mineralogy, and the Martian atmosphere to research the possibility or the past existence of life on the planet.

ExoMars programme was a joint mission of the European Space Agency and the Russian space agency (Roscosmos). The Schiaparelli EDM (Entry, Descent, and Landing Demonstrator Module) was launched together with ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter in 2016 to look for evidence of methane and other atmospheric gases. The orbiter successfully reached the orbit of Mars but the connection with EDM got lost upon arrival. 

Source: ESA

UAE and China have also sent spacecrafts in 2020

Besides NASA’s Perseverance, the United Arab Emirates and China have also launched their own spacecraft to Mars in the 2020 closest approach window. UAE launched its spacecraft ‘Hope’ on 20 July 2020 to orbit Mars and study its atmosphere and weather patterns, making UAE the fifth country to launch a spacecraft in the Martian orbit. Within 3 days, China launched Tianwen-1, a combined orbiter, lander, and rover. Reportedly, the Chinese spacecraft has entered a temporary parking orbit around Mars and is expected to land the rover on Mars in the coming months. If the mission succeeds, China will be the third country after the US and Russia to have landed a vehicle on Mars.  

The list of all missions to Mars in the chronological order and by country is given below:

More missions have been planned in the coming decade

Over the last decade or so, it is observed that other countries have started taking part in interplanetary exploration which was once dominated by the US and Russia. In fact, in the coming decade, many Mars missions are planned. These are ISRO’s Mangalyaan-2 or the Mars Orbiter Mission- 2 planned for 2024, ESA’s ExoMars rover planned for 2022, and NASA’s Mars Sample Return planned for 2022 as seen earlier. SpaceX has plans to transport cargo and people to Mars in the near future.

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