The First Time Humans Crashed a Probe on Mars
Last month, the European/Russian-built Schiaparelli lander crashed headlong into Mars after suffering a software glitch mere minutes before its planned touchdown in the Meridiani Planum region of the planet. The 49-by-131 foot blackened crater it left on the Martian surface is a reminder that landing robots on alien worlds is no easy feat.
Schiaparelli, rest in pieces. Image: NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter/ESA
Indeed, the tradition of crashing robots on Mars dates back to the Soviet probe Mars 2, which became the first human-made object to reach the Red Planet’s surface on November 27, 1971 (45 years ago this Sunday). Much like its descendent Schiaparelli, Mars 2 did not stick its landing.
Though it had sailed safely across the interplanetary expanse for six months and successfully separated from the orbital module, the lander encountered a stroke of bad luck during its descent phase, which happened to coincide with one of the strongest and longest dust storms on record at that time.
Hurtling through the tumultuous skies at a much steeper angle than expected, Mars 2 failed to deploy its parachutes and fatally smashed into the surface somewhere around 45 degrees south and 313 degrees west. The lander’s remains have never been found, and were possibly buried by the prolonged gusts of dusty weather (which lasted well into January 1972).
Its identical sister ship, Mars 3, fared somewhat better when it touched down five days later on December 2, and radioed back to Earth that it was safely on the Martian surface. It even sent back a grainy photograph and some environmental readings.
Image of Martian surface, captured by Mars 3 lander on December 3, 1971. Image: Soviet Academy of Sciences
But within 20 seconds, the probe’s transmissions stopped, possibly because the lander may have blown over by the same severe winds that had doomed its sibling spacecraft. It is unclear whether Mars 3 had time to unleash the delightfully weird Prop-M mobile robot, which had hitched a ride on both landers, before contact was lost. If so, it would have been the first time a rover concept had been tried out on the planet (check out minute 8:40 of the below video to watch a simulation of its deployment; it’s worth your time).
Within a week, the Soviet space program had attained two back-to-back Mars milestones—the first crash-landing, followed by the first soft-landing—but those successes were overshadowed by the fact that neither lander survived long enough to record comprehensive data about its otherworldly surroundings.
Renewed Russian attempts to land another pair of robots, Mars 6 and 7, on the planet in 1974 also ended in disappointment. Mars 6 suffered a communications failure mere seconds before its touchdown, while Mars 7 missed the planet entirely. In the end, NASA snagged the honor of establishing the first long-term surface operations on Mars in 1976, when the American Viking 1 and 2 probes soft-landed in the Chryse Planitia and Utopia Planitia regions respectively.
First clear picture from the Martian surface, taken by Viking 1. Image: NASA
Four decades later, and NASA remains the only organization to have successfully landed operational vehicles on Mars (though the US has experienced some painful failures there too).
But just because Mars 2 blasted itself into oblivion 45 years ago hardly means it is unworthy of celebration. Reaching the Martian surface so early in the space age is a feat unto itself, especially given the extenuating circumstances of epic dust storms.
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