With the evolution of technology and new resources, one of the biggest curiosity has been to find answers to the century-old question - are we alone in the universe? With humans aiming to be an interplanetary species in the future, the nearest attraction remains Mars. Several countries are in the race to the Red planet as it drives the human imagination of a future colony on the surface. The US, China, India, UAE have all successfully sent rovers, probes and spacecraft into the Martian orbi, deepening the understanding of the planet mired with ancient craters and signs of polar ice caps.
While unique in their objectives, the missions primarily aim at understanding the formation and early evolution of Mars as a planet, providing continuing improvements in technical capabilities of robotic Mars missions, capitalising on measurement opportunities that contribute to the advancement of knowledge required for future human exploration and ensuring scientific measurements that can enable human exploration.
Over the years NASA in collaboration with scientists from across the world has been able to land, rove and conduct scientific observations on the Martian surface. It has been able to figure out soil composition, presence of hydrogen in polar caps, surveil the planet from above and further the cause of scientific research outside our planet. The administration has been joined by India's ISRO, China's CNSA and other space agencies in understanding the unique planet, which was once predicted to have Earth-like conditions required for sustaining life.
While NASA landed its most advanced, complex and costly SUV sized Perseverance rover on the planet in February 2021, here are some of the critical missions that have graced the Martian land and orbit.
Perseverance Rover Mission: February 2021
The Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover will search for signs of ancient microbial life, which will advance NASA's quest to explore the past habitability of Mars. The rover has a drill to collect core samples of Martian rock and soil, then store them in sealed tubes for pickup by a future mission that would ferry them back to Earth for detailed analysis. Perseverance will also test technologies to help pave the way for future human exploration of Mars. Strapped to the rover's belly for the journey to Mars is a technology demonstration — the Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity, may to test the first powered flight on the Red Planet. The missions will also test a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, identifying other resources (such as subsurface water), improving landing techniques, and characterizing weather, dust, and other potential environmental conditions.
Tianwen-1: February 2021
Approved by Chinese authorities in January 2016, Tianwen translates to "questions about the heavens," and has been adapted from ancient Chinese verse by poet Qu Yuan. "In 'Tianwen,' Qu Yuan raised a series of questions in verse involving the sky, stars, natural phenomena, myths and the real world, showing his doubts about some traditional concepts and the spirit of seeking the truth." China aims to orbit, land and rove on the Martian surface in its first attempt. The Chinese spacecraft entered the orbit in February 2021. As the rover lands, the Tianwen-1 orbiter will provide a relay communication link while performing its own scientific observations for one Martian year. The orbiter will map the planet's morphology (formation) and geological structures using the Mars-Orbiting Subsurface Exploration Radar instrument. It will also observe the soil characteristics and water-ice distribution. Meanwhile, the rover which will land in Utopia Planitia basin is expected to be in operation for 90 Marian days. It will observe the surface soil characteristics and analyse the surface material composition with reference to the planet's climate and environment.
Mangalyaan: September 2014
Marking India's first venture into the interplanetary space, the Mars Orbiter Mission dubbed Mangalyaan explored and observed Martian surface features, morphology, mineralogy and the Martian atmosphere. The Indian Mission to Mars was primarily intended to establish Indian technological capability to reach another planet, orbit around it and provide an excellent opportunity to the scientific community to further understand the conditions at Mars. The mission has now completed six years in the Martian orbit and is transmitting data. The mission was hailed globally for its cost-effectiveness.
Opportunity and Spirit Rover mission: January 2004
In January 2004, two rovers named Spirit and Opportunity landed on opposite sides of the red planet, trekking for miles across the Martian surface, conducting field geology and making atmospheric observations. Carrying identical, sophisticated sets of science instruments, both rovers found evidence of ancient Martian environments where intermittently wet and habitable conditions existed. First among the mission's scientific goals was to search for and characterise a wide range of rocks and soils for clues to past water activity on Mars.
The rovers were targeted to sites on opposite sides of Mars that looked like they were affected by liquid water in the past. Spirit landed at Gusev Crater, a possible former lake in a giant impact crater. Opportunity landed at Meridiani Planum, a place where mineral deposits suggested that Mars had a wet history. With data from the rovers, mission scientists have reconstructed an ancient past when Mars was awash in water. Spirit and Opportunity each found evidence for past wet conditions that possibly could have supported microbial life.
Pathfinder: December 1996
Pathfinder was designed as a technology demonstration of a new way to deliver an instrumented lander and the first-ever robotic rover to the surface of the red planet. Pathfinder not only accomplished this goal but also returned an unprecedented amount of data and outlived its primary design life. It had scientific instruments to analyse the Martian atmosphere, climate, geology and the composition of its rocks and soil. The lander formally named the Carl Sagan Memorial Station following its successful touchdown, and the rover, named Sojourner after American civil rights crusader Sojourner Truth, both outlived their design lives — the lander by nearly three times, and the rover by 12 times. The rover observed early morning water ice clouds in the lower atmosphere, recorded abrupt temperature fluctuations suggesting that the atmosphere is warmed by the planet's surface, noted that the airborne dust was magnetic, and its characteristics suggest the magnetic mineral is maghemite among others.
Viking 1 & 2
Viking Project found a place in history when it became the first U.S. mission to land a spacecraft safely on the surface of Mars and return images of the surface. Two identical spacecraft, each consisting of a lander and an orbiter, were built. Each orbiter-lander pair flew together and entered Mars orbit; the landers then separated and descended to the planet's surface. The Viking 1 lander touched down on the western slope of Chryse Planitia (the Plains of Gold), while the Viking 2 lander settled down at Utopia Planitia. The Viking mission was planned to continue for 90 days after landing. Each orbiter and lander operated far beyond its design lifetime. Viking Orbiter 1 continued for four years and 1,489 orbits of Mars, concluding its mission August 7, 1980, while Viking Orbiter 2 functioned until July 25, 1978.