With a mix of national pride and scientific ambition, India’s space program launched a Mars-bound rocket off its eastern coast Tuesday over the Bay of Bengal, and if all goes as planned, the rocket will be orbiting Mars by next September.
It’s a big if. Of the nearly 40 Mars missions since the Soviet’s first failed attempt in 1960, most have ended in similar fashion.
As televised images showed India’s first Mars mission rocketing in to space, many Indians applauded the prowess of their country’s $1-billion space program.
The Mars mission will cost an estimated $72-million. The Mars Orbiter Mission, widely referred to as Mangalyaan, or Mars craft, will study methane in the Martian atmosphere. The source of reported methane plumes on Mars has intrigued scientists because its possible source – tiny microbes – could indicate life on the planet.
But getting to the data-gathering stage will first require clearing a series of potentially disastrous hurdles. Mars missions by the U.S., the Soviet Union and Europe that eventually succeeded only did so after a series of failures.
If complicated manoeuvres in Earth’s orbit, which involve firing the rocket’s burners so that it can break free of Earth’s gravitational pull – sending it on a trajectory to Mars – end up failing, the Indian mission will join a long list of ambitious attempts that came crashing to Earth, or on Mars, or drifting off in to space.
Here are four examples of Mars missions that went terribly wrong.
14 seconds of glory
In the 1960s-era space race between the U.S. and the USSR, it was the Soviet Union that quickly jumped ahead in its Mars mission attempts – most of which ended in spectacular failure.
Whether it was faulty solar panels leaving probes to run out of power in space, as happened in during the Zond 2 mission in 1964 or the 1969 launches of twin rockets that malfunctioned and came crashing to Earth shortly after liftoff, the Soviets endured a long string of bad luck before achieving successful fly-by missions and orbits of Mars – and that happened only after the U.S. got their first.
While the Soviets successfully landed a unmanned Mars probe on the red planet, the Mars 3 landing was short-lived. After transmitting data that lasted about 14 seconds, mission control lost contact.
Scientists believe the probe landed right in the middle of a Martian dust storm, as Wired magazine’s Adam Mann points out.
Getting the math wrong
A NASA probe launched in 1964 was the first to successfully complete a fly-by and transmit nearly a dozen images of Mars. Another probe achieved the first orbit of Mars in 1971.
But the U.S. space program has witnessed its own setbacks. The $813-million Mars Observer mission launched on Sept. 25, 1992, was to undertake an ambitious study of the planet’s surface and atmosphere from space.
Nearly a year after its launch – and just three days before it was to enter a Mars orbit – mission control lost, and never regained, contact with the probe. The reason for the failure remains a mystery.
What is not a mystery is what led to the destruction of a separate NASA mission. The Mars Climate Orbiter, which was launched in 1998, was destroyed as it entered the orbit of the planet – and in this case, the error was human, as outlined in this 1999 NASA press release.
“Our inability to recognize and correct this simple error has had major implications,” stated Dr. Edward Stone, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the time.
The error: one NASA team used English units while another used the metric system causing the probe to enter the orbit of the planet incorrectly.
Britain’s Beagle 2 disappointment
The British-designed Beagle 2 Mars lander was part of a European Space Agency mission to Mars. It was to land on the surface of the red planet on Christmas Day in 2003.
“I’m afraid it’s the usual England scenario – we’re going to play extra time,” said the lead Beagle 2 scientist to a group of journalists, encouraging them not to believe that the spacecraft had been lost and the mission a failure.
Named after the ship that carried scientist Charles Darwin during his travels that would ultimately lead to the theory of evolution, the Beagle 2 had its own ambitious agenda: a half-year exploration of life on Mars. But hopes for the British Mars probe quickly began to fade.
A separate NASA spacecraft orbiting Mars at the time searched for a signal from the Beagle 2 landing site, but there was no contact. After weeks of trying to communicate with the probe, those involved in the mission gave up.
China’s Mars dream dashed
If the Indian mission to Mars succeeds, the Indian space program will have beaten its rival China – a feat that would be a huge boost to national pride.
China’s space program had planned to place a spacecraft in the orbit of Mars by now, but a 2011 mission that carried the Chinese Yinghuo-1 Mars orbiter as part of a larger Russian-lead mission that aimed to bring Mars rock samples back to Earth ended in failure.
The Russian spacecraft was to fire its rockets twice – lifting it higher in to Earth’s orbit and eventually on a trajectory to Mars. But when that failed to happen, the Russian spacecraft was doomed – eventually crashing into the Pacific Ocean and dashing the hopes of China’s space program.
The India-China rivalry marks a new chapter in space exploration and what some see as the emergence of a new space race.
“In the last century the space race meant the US against the Soviets. In the 21st century it means India against China,” Indian space journalist Pallava Bagla, told the Guardian newspaper. “There is a lot of national pride involved in this.”