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The Exploration of Mars

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The Solar System | Mercury | Venus | Earth | Mars | Jupiter | Saturn | Uranus | Neptune | Pluto | Chiron - a Celestial Entity | The Kuiper Belt and The Oort Cloud

If there's one planet in the solar system that's been begging for exploration since it was first discovered, it's Mars.

The History of Mars Exploration

It all really began in 1877 when an Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported that the planet appeared to be criss-crossed with a network of narrow lines. He labelled them 'channels' (canali) but this was translated into English as 'canals'. In October 1894, the US astronomer Percival Lowell begun to make detailed observations of the planet's surface. Suddenly he started seeing canals everywhere, and he was sure that they were of artificial origin. He devoted the rest of his life to a study of Mars, founding his own observatory and writing books about the aliens of Mars.

Sadly the poor fellow was mistaken. The 'canals' were simply an optical illusion, the telescopes of the time just weren't good enough and Percival didn't have the best eyesight... but for decades afterwards the legend of aliens on Mars lived on. Science fiction writers spun amazing stories about Martian civilizations, the essence of all of them being the following plot: an eccentric scientist would cobble together a space ship in his basement, land on Mars and rescue a beautiful, scantily-clad1 princess from certain doom.

The First Probes

All these wild fantasies were shattered when the first space probes reached Mars in the period from 1965 to 1976. The US sent a series of Mariner probes to fly past the planet taking pictures, and unfortunately the early photos showed a surface as dead as the moon. Mariner 9 did discover great volcanoes though, and the Valles Marineris canyon system.

The race to land on the surface was now on. The Russians sent a couple of probes which flew straight into a dust storm and were destroyed. One made it to the surface but only lasted a few seconds.

The US Viking missions finally landed safely on the surface on July 20, 1976. They showed a red dusty rocky surface, and a pink sky. Scientists got all excited, but the truth was the view just wasn't that great. It looked just like a boring little patch of land somewhere off the M31 motorway. The Vikings ran tests for life but these tests showed nothing conclusive. The little green men were nowhere to be seen.

The 1990s

There was a pause in Martian exploration for a while, and then come the 1990s things really got going again. The Russians sent out quite a few more probes, but something always went wrong - the probes had a tendency to go... kaput. In the US scientists spent years and years of their lives designing instruments, and the government spent one billion dollars making a sad little probe known as the Mars Observer (sad because in 1992 it finally lifted off for Mars, spent months travelling there, and then blew up at the last minute).

At last, in 1997, there was success! The US Mars Pathfinder probe landed in an ancient valley on Mars, and a rover crawled on to the surface. Millions watched it all on the Internet, and then switched off just as quickly when they realised that things hadn't changed much since the days of Viking. The view was still no more interesting than a deserted patch of land somewhere off the M31 motorway, the rover could only go a few feet, and the scientists spent most of their time giving silly names to the rocks they found.

But interest in Mars had risen again. A year prior to Pathfinder, some NASA scientists got all worked up when a Martian meteorite that had landed in Antarctica was found to contain a few microscopic blobs - alien fossils perhaps?

Meanwhile, the science fiction writers were churning out some pretty slick stories. Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy is fairly exciting stuff, and a fellow called Robert Zubrin was running around trying to convince everyone that it was vital that we colonise Mars today. This former aerospace engineer had spent a number of years developing a radical new plan for a manned Mars mission. His plan demonstrated how a manned Mars mission could easily be carried out with exciting technology for an affordable price. He founded the Mars Society to promote the human exploration of Mars.

NASA committed itself to a comprehensive programme of Mars exploration over the coming years. In 1998 two new probes were launched - Mars Polar Lander and Mars Surveyor. In 1999 the probes finally arrived at Mars, but Mars Surveyor immediately burned up in the atmosphere. Mars Polar Lander headed for a landing in the South pole and promptly disappeared into a deep valley, and was never seen or heard from again.

When Are We Going to Mars - And How do I Get There?

To get to Mars you need a spare US $50 billion, which might be a little hard to come by. Short of raising the cash yourself, the only thing to do is to beg the governments of Europe and/or the United States to hand it over. The only problem with finding government funding is that scientific research is usually the first thing to be cut if the government needs cash - which is bad news for prospective space programmes. Good luck to you, if you try this route.

When you've raised the cash it will need to go to a good space agency like NASA, and it will take about ten years for them to come up with all the right hardware. The journey to Mars takes about six to nine months - provided the rocket doesn't blow up, that is.

Alternatively, you could try to elect Robert Zubrin as President of the United States of America...

1Possibly a major reason for their popularity.

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