Destination Mars!

The first weather report from Mars arrived on July 20, 1976.

“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° F. Daytime high -22° F. Pressure steady at 7.7 mb.”

So went the day for the Viking 1 Lander. It was typical weather for the planet Mars. We haven’t been back to check the weather (or anything else for that matter) since. But that would change when the Soviet Union launched on July 7th and 12th, its two Phobos spacecraft. Phobos 1 & 2 would reach the red planet in January 1989, and place landers on the moons of Mars, Deimos and Phobos.

Since 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 too. (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.)

In reality, we’ve visited Mars several times (including flyby and orbiter missions). The USSR has sent 15 missions, and we have sent 8, but of those 23 missions, only 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 are high for the Phobos 1 & 2 spacecraft, a mission which includes orbiting Mars itself, hovering very close to the surface of Phobos, and dropping two types of landers on Phobos, and possibly Deimos, too.

Twelve countries are taking part in the Soviet Mars mission, but not the USA. Soviet officials have agreed, however, to 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 this mission].”

Well, score one! for the Naval Observatory.