Mission to Mars: Everything You Need to Know About Exploration of the Red Planet

By Jamie Greyson & Helen LinLast Updated Mar 30, 2021 5:10:45 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

We’ve made it to the moon, but the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) isn’t stopping there. Over the years, plenty of iconic space-exploration missions have taken place and, although many have ended in failure, there have been some history-making success stories. These days, Mars seems to be the apple of NASA’s eye — and for good reason. With this in mind, we’re taking a look at some of the most important discoveries and missions related to the red planet.

Everything You Need to Know About the Red Planet

With a radius of 2,106 miles, Mars is the seventh-largest planet in our solar system. And, since it takes twice as long for the red planet to fully orbit the sun, a year on Mars equates to 687 days on Earth. Some other key differences? The Martian atmosphere is much thinner than Earth’s, which impacts the planet’s temperatures: when it’s hot, Mars reaches temps of 70 degrees Fahrenheit, but, when it’s cold, things can plummet to a chilling -225 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Photo Courtesy: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Moreover, Mars’ atmosphere is composed of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and argon, but, in being so thin, it seems to fuel the so-called "Martian breeze," which, in addition to conjuring massive dust storms, can reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. Thanks to its ongoing explorations, NASA discovered that the heavily cratered planet was once home to lakes and rivers — billions of years ago, that is. While known of those water features seem to exist today, the planet hosts a wide variety of valleys, mountains and volcanoes.

First-Ever Landings on Mars

Since 1960, 49 missions (and counting) have attempted to reach Mars — and roughly half of those attempts have been deemed failures. While that might seem like a lot of failings, there have been some impressive, landmark achievements, too.

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Photo Courtesy: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

For example, the first successful Martian exploration endeavor occurred on July 15, 1965, when NASA’s Mariner 4 spacecraft managed to snap the very first close-up photos of the red planet. That same mission, which is now known as the first successful flyby of Mars, also determined that the planet is mainly composed of carbon dioxide.

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While pictures are exciting, landings are even more history-making. The first spacecraft to land on Mars, a Soviet probe fittingly named Mars 2, crash-landed on the Martian surface back in 1971. Although Mars 2 made history as the first human-made item to reach the red planet, it clearly wasn’t an optimal landing.

A few days later, its twin spacecraft, Mars 3, managed the first successful robotic landing — and then failed 110 seconds later. Nonetheless, these Soviet missions nabbed some then-impressive pictures.

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An Overview of Other Landmark Missions to Mars

Since then, NASA’s made many more attempts. In the mid-‘70s, NASA launched Viking 1 and Viking 2, two orbiters and two landers, which were the second and third spacecraft to successfully land on Mars. The aim here? Scientific observation. More specifically, NASA researchers wanted to observe the meteorologic, seismic and magnetic properties of Mars.

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Selfie taken by Curiosity on Mars via @MarsCuriosity/Twitter. Original tweet reads: "Wish you were here! This selfie was taken in front of 'Mont Mercou' ...It's made up of 60 images from my MAHLI camera and 11 images from my Mastcam."

Decades later, the Pathfinder, a roving probe, made it to the red planet in 1997, bringing with it a robotic, wheeled rover named Sojourner, the first rover to operate on the planet’s surface. Around the same time, NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor, began its study of the Martian surface and atmosphere, taking pictures that suggested water sources once existed on — or inside — the planet. By 2001, NASA’s Mars Odyssey endeavored to find more evidence of water.

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Over the years, NASA has embarked on other missions, from 2003’s Mars Exploration Rover Mission to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. But despite these landmark missions from NASA — as well as missions launched by other countries — perhaps none captured the public’s attention more than NASA’s Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars on August 16, 2012. Curiosity’s goal? To determine if the planet was once hospitable. But Curiosity became something of an internet celebrity, reigniting our collective interest in the exploration of Mars.

Thanks to MAVEN, an orbiter and communications relay satellite, and Curiosity, NASA has gathered more intel on the red planet than we once thought possible. In fact, between NASA’s own success and the success of other countries’ space programs, the United States-based organization remains hopeful that, one day, humankind will touch the surface of Mars, too.

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Mars Exploration in 2021: Listen to the Sound of Martian Wind

On February 20, 2021, NASA’s Perseverance rover reached an important milestone. Although the rover’s microphones didn’t pick up any sound during its seven-minute landing process, it was able to record the sound of Martian wind once it touched down on the surface.

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Photo Courtesy: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

The rover landed in Jezero Crater, which scientists assume was once a lake — you know, 3.5 billion years ago. Nowadays, the area’s all rocks, craters, and cliffs. Still, Perseverance’s goal remains similar to that of rovers past: capture some signs of past life on Mars. While that has yet to happen, hearing Martian wind from millions of miles away is still a stunning achievement.

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The mission cost NASA $2.7 billion, but it proved to have been worth it. NASA’s scientists believe that Perseverance should be able to record stereo sound on the planet — so long as the microphones hold — which means that sounds and images from future missions will be able to transport us to Mars in a whole new way.

Will Humans Ever Touch Down on the Surface of Mars?

So, with so many spacecraft making successful trips to Mars, is there potential for humans to do the same? NASA thinks so. In fact, the tech that would make this possible is currently in development — and it has a 2030 deadline. From high-tech spacesuits and a power system to the very first Martian mobile home, this tech aims to make more than a giant leap for humankind.

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Photo Courtesy: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Alongside this futuristic-sounding technology, NASA will continue to search for clues about life on Mars. The agency even hopes to bring back samples of the planet’s rocks and soil. And other agencies have plans of their own: for example, the European Space Agency also has plans to drill into Mars' surface to find out more about the history and the present of the planet.

Meanwhile, business mogul and SpaceX founder Elon Musk has his own plans to make travel to Mars possible by 2050 — not just for astronauts, but for folks who want an out-of-this-world vacation. Some scientists seem to think that SpaceX-style visits to Mars would only be possible if robotic mining improved as this process would allow for folks to access water and fuel. Professor Serkan Saydam, from the University of New South Wales, Sydney, believes that this endeavor might be a bit complicated. "The process for having humans on Mars will be to set up operations, go there and produce water with robots first, and then be able to extract the hydrogen to make the energy ready before people arrive," he explains.

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But not all of these history-making moments are years away. Even now, Perseverance is achieving a number of "firsts" in the history of Mars exploration. Needless to say, there’s a lot of exciting discoveries to tide us over until that day we all gather around our screens to watch an astronaut take their first steps on Mars.