Mars Exploration turns 50

First, an announcement. The 2021 kickoff of Astronomy Night at Tye Preston Memorial Library was a big hit with 63 in attendance! A donated (Gibbs family) circa 2002 Meade ETX-90EC telescope package was given as a door prize to a very excited winner. We had four telescopes set up in addition to the observatory. A great night!

Where were you on November 14, 1971? Were you not born yet, too young, or just can’t remember? Me, I was working and hanging out with friends, not aware of the momentous event occurring at Mars, and certainly not aware of the record making 5 launches that previous May. All five were set on a course for Mars, three from the Soviet Union and two from the US. We were in a heated space race with the USSR, and they were determined to beat us to Mars. After all, we overtook and ultimately beat them to the Moon.

NASA’s Mariner 9 was the first earthly spacecraft to enter orbit around another planet, on November 14, 1971. The US won the race again, but not by much. The USSR’s Mars 2 spacecraft reached orbit around Mars on November 27 and Mars 3 attained orbit on December 2, 1971. Now, that was a race!

While Mariner 9 made history, that isn’t the whole story, not by a mile. Let’s start at the beginning.

The Soviet Union turned the world upside down with its launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957. The race for space was on! For the next few years the USSR would have many more successes that the US. But starting in 1962 the US’s success rate improved drastically and the race started its neck and neck phase. JFK had set us on a course for the Moon…and beyond, but the race to mars also got off to a rough start.

1960 – The Soviets had an aggressive plan, with two launches for Mars, Marsnik 1 and 2 (Mars 1960A and B). Both failed to attain an Earth parking orbit and burned up.

1962 – The Soviets launched 3 missions. Sputnik 22 broke up in Earth parking orbit, Mars 1 lost communication as it approached Mars, and Sputnik 24 broke up as it attempted to transfer to Mars trajectory.

1964 – The US launched Mariner 3, but its protective shroud did not jettison so it could not attain a Mars trajectory. Mariner 4 was launched and succeeded in its Mars fly by mission. The Soviets launched Zond 2 which became the first spacecraft to successfully test an electric ion (plasma) engine. It lost communication before reaching Mars.

1969 – The US launched Mariners 6 & 7, both successful Mars flybys. The Soviets launched Mars 1969A & B, never officially announced.  They both exploded during launch.

1971 – The Soviets launched 3 missions. Cosmos 419 never made it passed Earth parking orbit as its stage 4 was set to ignite after 1.5 years instead of the planned 1.5 hours.  Mars 2 & 3 were successful orbiters, but the landers failed. The US launched 2 missions. Mariner 8 failed at launch. Mariner 9 succeeded.

More next week.

What’s in the Sky?

November 17; after midnight; southeast:  The Leonid meteor shower peaks with a bright Moon interfering.

November 19; 1:18 am CST; south: Lunar eclipse starts and enters near totality at 3:03 am CST