Destination Mars

The Planet MarsSince ancient times, Mars has always been the planet that most excites the human imagination. In our minds we've populated Mars a thousand times, and with a myriad of creatures (notably Barsoomians, Thoats, and the like). In the year 1900 a French woman, Madame Goguet, offered 100,000 gold francs to the first human who successfully communicated with intelligence from another planet, excluding the planet Mars. Apparently, that would have been too easy. Needless to say, nobody won the prize and French inflation eventually killed it. ;~)

"Light winds from the East in the late afternoon, changing to light winds from the Southeast after midnight. Maximum winds15 m.p.h. Overnight low -122 degrees F. Daytime high -22 degrees F. Pressure steady at 7.7 mb." This was the first weather report from Mars, July 20, 1976. So went the day for the Viking 1 Lander. It was typical day on the planet Mars.

In reality, we've visited Mars several times (including flyby and orbiter missions). The USSR sent 15 missions before 1988, and we sent only 8, but of those 23 missions, 7 were fully successful, most notably the USA's Viking 1 & 2 missions, which placed landers on the surface of the planet. The Soviets were plagued with bad luck on their Mars missions, and never did, despite many attempts, land successfully on Mars. Hopes were high for the Phobos 1 & 2 spacecraft, a mission to orbit Mars, but software problems caused Phobos 1 to become disoriented with the sun and the craft just plain ran out of power.

Quoting NASA now... Phobos 2 operated nominally throughout its cruise and Mars orbital insertion phases, gathering data on the Sun, interplanetary medium, Mars, and Phobos. Shortly before the final phase of the mission, during which the spacecraft was to approach within 50 m of Phobos' surface and release two landers, one a mobile 'hopper', the other a stationary platform, contact with Phobos 2 was lost. The mission ended when the spacecraft signal failed to be successfully reacquired on 27 March 1989. The cause of the failure was determined to be a malfunction of the on-board computer.

How times have changed! Twelve countries took part in the Soviet Mars mission, but not the USA. The Soviets did place an aluminum plaque on one of the landers commemorating the discovery of Phobos by the U.S. Naval Observatory, promising that this memento would remain on Mars forever. "We will be happy to install this plaque on the lander," said Soviet astronomer Dr. Alexander Zakharov at a formal ceremony at the Naval Observatory on April 30th, "Unfortunately, it is the only piece of American hardware on the mission." Well, score one! for the Naval Observatory.

By now humanities effort to traverse the "red planet" is well known and well underway. Of course this subject is well documented on the MARS FACT SHEET, but as an amateur astronomer, it is this month that I am reminded of our earliest attempts to place objects on that planet. And that our first real glimpse of Martian weather occured in the Skies of July!

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