It seems like the world has been fascinated by Mars for decades. Since unmanned missions began in 1960, there have been 56 missions to Mars from countries around the world. While less than half of these missions have been successful, the problems haven’t stopped us.
NASA’s upcoming Mars 2020 Mission will launch in July using the Perseverance rover. The mission hopes to address key scientific goals for Mars exploration, answer questions about the potential for life on the red planet, and collect core samples from its surface.
Jean Creighton, the director of the Manfred Olson Planetarium at UW-Milwaukee and Lake Effect's regular astronomy contributor, says decades of exploration laid the groundwork for Perseverance.
The interest in Mars started in the 1950s when the United States and Soviet Union agreed that America would go ahead with missions to Mars and the Soviet Union would pursue missions to Venus. "It turns out that the Americans did better because even though the Soviets sent something like 16 or 18 missions, the Venera series, Venus is a very hostile planet," says Creighton.
In the 1960s, the U.S. had the Mariner series, which sent space crafts to orbit Mars. In the 1970s, the Viking series began to send imaging technology to photograph the surface and landed on Mars in 1976, explains Creighton.
"Subsequently, we found out that, actually, Mars really is hard and of the 40 some missions that have been sent, 20 have been successful. So, we are looking at a 50/50 success rate," says Creighton
Nearing the 30th anniversary of the successful Mars landing, NASA interviewed some of the engineers behind the mission and released this video:
The upcoming Perseverance mission has four main goals:
- Collect data on the geology of Mars
- Search for signs of microbial life
- Store rock samples for a return mission
- Test technology for future missions
These goals were all chosen to continue the search for definitive proof that there is or once was life on Mars. "It's pretty clear that we don't have any walking, talking creatures on Mars. But whether there's bacteria on Mars, that's yet to be determined," says Creighton.
There are also hopes that Perseverance will shed new light on what technology is needed to send humans to Mars. "We can't send people there unless we have some idea of what the soil is really like, how toxic is the environment, measurements about radiation, all kinds of things," she says.