Mars exploration: five milestones you should know

In September 2021, the Perseverance rover collected a pair of rock samples from the Martian surface, adding to a series of important events in the history of exploring the red planet. Get to know them: here we present the five milestones of Mars exploration most important so far.

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Mars has been in the imaginary about all forms of life outside of Earth. At the end of the 19th century, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli claimed to have seen channels all over the planet, while his American counterpart Percival suggested that these could have been created by intelligent beings.

Although the most recent efforts have ruled out the existence of life as we know it on Earth, scientists continue to reveal the mysteries that the fourth planet still hides, as evidenced by the most important milestones in the exploration of Mars.

The First Great Approach (1965)

Preparations for the launch of the Mariner 4 probe.

The former Soviet Union pioneered Mars exploration projects in the early 1960s, but these efforts inevitably failed. Although unsuccessful due to loss of contact during the trajectory, the Mars 1 probe became the first human object to approach the planet at 120,000 miles in June 1963.

Different was the case of the US Mariner 4 probe, which was launched in November 1964. The spacecraft flew over Mars between July 14 and 15, 1965, a period during which it sent 21 photographs and 21 image lines 22 , which was interrupted.

Contrary to what the popular imagination dictated until then, the first photographs showed a desolate, desert landscape with abundant craters resulting from meteorite impacts, similar to those existing on the Moon.

The First Orbiter (1971)

The Mariner 9 Orbiter
NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC

In May 1971 the US probe Mariner 9 took off, which in November of that year became the first human object to enter orbit on another planet and, therefore, the first artificial satellite of Mars. When he reached his position, he managed to capture images of the great dust storms that originate in the southern hemisphere and that darken the entire surface of the planet.

The probe sent 54,000 million bits of scientific data, including 7,329 photographs that allowed the creation of the first global map of Mars, with detailed views of volcanoes, polar caps, the Valle Marineris and the two natural satellites, Phobos and Deimos.

The Mariner 9 probe was shut down in October 1972 after a year of operations. It is estimated that it would enter the Martian atmosphere 50 years after being turned off.

The first rover (1971)

PROP-M Marte
This is what the small Soviet Prop-M rover looked like.

Months after the arrival of Mariner 9 to the orbit of Mars, the former Soviet Union managed to successfully land its first rover as part of the Mars 3 mission, consisting of a probe, a lander and a rover.

Named PROP-M, the rover was a small 4.5-kilogram robot attached to the lander by a 15-meter-long cable to maintain communications.

PROP-M had to be deployed after landing and performed soil analysis every 1.5 meters, in addition to its own footprints that would allow knowing the characteristics of the terrain. However, shortly after landing and starting the transfer of the first images, the lander lost contact with Earth, rendering PROP-M inactive..

Water on Mars (2001 and 2018)

Discovery of groundwater on Mars in 2018
NASA/Viking – JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University – ESA

In 2001, the United States sent the Mars Odyssey probe. After mapping the distribution and concentration of chemical and mineral elements on the planet, he confirmed the existence of ice, a finding that supported the theories of large amounts of water on Mars.

A decade later, in 2011, NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars. After almost a year of work, he found evidence of the past existence of a lake in Gale crater, and estimated the presence of 2 percent water in the global composition of the soil.

However, the most relevant finding was recorded in July 2018. Using data from the European Mars Express probe, Italian scientists discovered an underground lake about 20 kilometers wide about 1.5 kilometers below the cap of the south pole of Mars.

First flight (2021)

In particular, this year has been dedicated to Mars. With three missions exploring the territory simultaneously – the United States, China and the United Arab Emirates – the possibilities of advancing knowledge of the planet are unthinkable.

But one of the biggest milestones was recorded on April 19, 2021. Moved inside the Perseverance rover, a small helicopter called Ingenuity made the first flight of a device created on Earth and directed from it over the Martian atmosphere.

Although it was a hovering flight just 10 feet up, dubbed the “Wright Brothers Moment,” the 6-pound machine was able to rise and overcome the thin Martian atmosphere, which is less than 1 percent the density of Earth.

Rock extraction (2021)

Image of Jezeero crater rock drilled by Perseverance.
Image of the rock of the Jezero crater drilled by Perseverance. NASA/JPL-Caltech

In September 2021, the Perseverance rover collected the first pair of Martian surface samples that NASA intends to bring to Earth on future missions.

The rocks were taken in the Jezero crater, but NASA’s goal is to have samples from the southern dune sector of Séítah in order to answer key questions, such as the history of Mars and the stability of liquid water.

The samples are sealed in titanium tubes that the rover carries on its chassis and will remain stored until at some point the rover drops them in one or more tanks to be recovered.

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