Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Is Mars a spacecraft graveyard?

Beagle Lander
With the recent failure of Russia's Phobos-Grunt Mars probe there is concern that a similar fate may await the U.S. Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover mission due to launch next week. Some have even gone so far as to call Mars a "spacecraft graveyard."  Is it? What does the record show?

Below is a historical list of all Mars missions as compiled by NASA.  A quick look at the list reveals some interesting points.

There have been 39 missions to Mars. Russia launched 19, the United States 18, Europe 1 and Japan 1. Of those, 17 were successful or at least partially successful. The United States has had 13 successes, Russia 3, and Europe 1. Of the failures 11 failed on launch or never left Earth orbit. Overall Mars missions have had a 43% success rate. The US success rate is 72%.

Of course this data includes missions that go back as far as the 1960’s. A lot has been learned about sending probes to Mars since then. Of the 7 Mars missions launched since 2001, 6 have been successful. Phobos-Grunt is the only exception and the Russians haven’t given up on it yet.

So is the MSL rover heading for a Martian spacecraft graveyard. Hardly. Will it succeed? Only time will tell.

Historical list of all Mars missions:
Mission: Country, Launch Date, Purpose, Results
Marsnik 1: USSR, 10/10/60, Mars flyby, did not reach Earth orbit
Marsnik 2: USSR, 10/14/60, Mars flyby, did not reach Earth orbit
Sputnik 22: USSR, 10/24/62, Mars flyby, achieved Earth orbit only
Mars 1: USSR, 11/1/62, Mars flyby, radio failed at 65.9 million miles (106 million kilometers)
Sputnik 24: USSR, 11/4/62, Mars flyby, achieved Earth orbit only
Mariner 3: U.S., 11/5/64, Mars flyby, shroud failed to jettison
Mariner 4: U.S. 11/28/64, first successful Mars flyby 7/14/65, returned 21 photos
Zond 2: USSR, 11/30/64, Mars flyby, passed Mars but radio failed, returned no planetary data
Mariner 6: U.S., 2/24/69, Mars flyby 7/31/69, returned 75 photos
Mariner 7: U.S., 3/27/69, Mars flyby 8/5/69, returned 126 photos
Mars 1969A: USSR, 3/27/69, Mars orbiter, did not reach Earth orbit
Mars 1969B: USSR, 4/2/69, Mars orbiter, failed during launch
Mariner 8: U.S., 5/8/71, Mars orbiter, failed during launch
Kosmos 419: USSR, 5/10/71, Mars lander, achieved Earth orbit only
Mars 2: USSR, 5/19/71, Mars orbiter/lander arrived 11/27/71, no useful data, lander burned up due to steep entry
Mars 3: USSR, 5/28/71, Mars orbiter/lander, arrived 12/3/71, lander operated on surface for 20 seconds before failing
Mariner 9: U.S., 5/30/71, Mars orbiter, operated in orbit 11/13/71 to 10/27/72, returned 7,329 photos
Mars 4: USSR, 7/21/73, failed Mars orbiter, flew past Mars 2/10/74
Mars 5: USSR, 7/25/73, Mars orbiter, arrived 2/12/74, lasted a few days
Mars 6: USSR, 8/5/73, Mars flyby module and lander, arrived 3/12/74, lander failed due to fast impact
Mars 7: USSR, 8/9/73, Mars flyby module and lander, arrived 3/9/74, lander missed the planet
Viking 1: U.S., 8/20/75, Mars orbiter/lander, orbit 6/19/76-1980, lander 7/20/76-1982
Viking 2: U.S., 9/9/75, Mars orbiter/lander, orbit 8/7/76-1987, lander 9/3/76-1980; combined, the Viking orbiters and landers returned more than 50,000 photos
Phobos 1: USSR, 7/7/88, Mars orbiter and Phobos lander, lost 8/88 en route to Mars
Phobos 2: USSR, 7/12/88, Mars orbiter and Phobos lander, lost 3/89 near Phobos
Mars Observer: U.S., 9/25/92, Mars orbiter, lost just before Mars arrival 8/21/93
Mars Global Surveyor: U.S., 11/7/96, Mars orbiter, arrived 9/12/97, high-detail mapping through 1/00, third extended mission completed 9/06, last communication 11//2/06
Mars 96: Russia, 1/16/96, orbiter/two landers/two penetrators, launch vehicle failed
Mars Pathfinder: U.S., 12/4/96, Mars lander/rover, landed 7/4/97, completed prime mission and began extended mission 8/3/07, last transmission 9/27/97
Nozomi: Japan, 7/4/98, Mars orbiter, failed to enter orbit 12/03
Mars Climate Orbiter: U.S., 12/11/98, lost upon arrival 9/23/99
Mars Polar Lander/Deep Space 2: U.S., 1/3/99, lander/two penetrators, lost on arrival 12/3/99
Mars Odyssey: U.S., 3/7/01, Mars orbiter, arrived 10/24/01, completed prime mission 8/25/04, currently conducting extended mission of science and communication relay
Mars Express/Beagle 2: European Space Agency, 6/2/03, Mars orbiter/lander, orbiter completed prime mission 11/05, currently in extended mission; lander lost on arrival 12/25/03
Mars Exploration Rover Spirit: U.S., 6/10/03, Mars rover, landed 1/4/04 for three-month prime mission inside Gusev Crater, completed several extended missions, last communication 3/22/10
Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity: U.S., 7/7/03, Mars rover, landed 1/25/04 for three-month prime mission in Meridiani Planum region, currently conducting extended mission
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter: U.S., 8/12/05, Mars orbiter, arrived 3/12/06, completed prime mission 9/26/10, currently conducting extended mission of science and communication relay
Phoenix Mars Lander: U.S., 8/4/07, Mars lander, landed 5/25/08, completed prime mission and began extended mission 8/26/08, last communication 11/2/08
Phobos-Grunt: Russia,11/8/11, Phobos lander and sample return, currently stuck in earth orbit.

Notes: 
  1. I counted Mars 3 a success even though it failed 20 seconds after landing because it was the first craft to land successfully on Mars.
  2. I considered Mars Express and Beagle as one mission since they were launched together.
Image credit: ESA