Martian Space Failures


Written by James Read
14 Monday 14th November 2011

Anyway, Phobos-Grunt is in good company with Mars missions failing at an astronomical 50% - a rate so high that the term 'Mars Curse' has been coined to describe the interplanetary Bermuda triangle. Admittedly, the majority of the problems were during the early space race, and Phobos-Grunt was only the second failed launch in the last decade (though the other one was Beagle 2 - the first British attempt to get to Mars, so doubly embarrassing for us).

So we figured it would be a fine time to cast Phobos-Grunt in a better light, with an exploration of some other notable failed space missions.

Edited image from Mars 3 by Ted Stryk

Mars 2

What better place to start than with Russia's first attempted landing on their red neighbour, way back in 1971 (well, discounting Sputnik 24, which failed to leave Earth's orbit, similarly to Phobos-Grunt). This was to land on the surface of the planet itself (rather than its moon), and have a little look around - though with no plans to return. It got a lot further than Russia's most recent effort - in that it actually left Earth, got into Mars orbit and sent back some pictures. It then sent down its lander, but unfortunately its parachute failed to deploy. So effectively we fired a very expensive bullet at Mars at 6km/s, which may well have killed the last remaining survivor of an ancient Martian race. Perhaps.

It was accompanied by Mars 3, which did considerably better, dropping off the first ever lander that actually landed on Mars. A great achievement for mankind (though unfortunately it failed after 15 seconds).

The 'UFO' near Phobos

Phobos 1 & 2

After a couple more partially successful orbiters, and a couple of failed lander missions, the Soviets switched up and tried landing on Mars' moon. Phobos 1 was happily pootling through the millions of kilometers of empty space between us and Mars, when a single character command typo from Baikonur Cosmodrome turned off its orientation control. Losing its lock on the Sun and thus the power from the solar arrays, Phobos 1 drifted off to destination unknown.

Phobos 2 succeeding in reaching orbit, and was all set to drop landers on the moon, when contact was abruptly lost. Its last photos were smuggled out of Russia and later revealed, apparently showing a cylindrical object several miles long, just below the Martian moon. UFO speculation abounds, but it was probably a simple camera artefact. And with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, that was the last time Russia made for Mars, until now.

Professor Colin Pillinger with Beagle 2

Beagle 2

Throughout the 90s, NASA dominated Mars with a number of attempted missions including the successful Pathfinder lander & rover missions. But come 2003, a new contender appeared. A very rare British foray into space was met with the kind of boundless national enthusiasm usually reserved for major international sporting fixtures (and had similar results). Led by the charismatic and mutton-chopped Prof Colin Pillinger, its populist aim was to search for life on Mars. It was even named after Darwin's ship, and had a call-sign written by Blur and a camera calibration card designed by Damien Hirst. Not that any of that mattered, when it went off the radar soon after leaving its Mars Express 'mother ship'. It's assumed that it made a 'hard landing' (which is a generous way of saying "it crashed"). Its successor, Beagle 3, was swiftly cancelled, and then to add insult to injury, even its UK heritage was cut loose when it was depicted in the Transformers movie, with Beagle 2 styled as a NASA craft.

Hubble image of the Antennae galaxies as they collide

Hubble Bonus Round!

Of course, it's not only Mars missions that are subject to mishap. You wouldn't know it from the fine images it's been sending us for the last 21 years, but Old Mother Hubble actually wears glasses. When she was first put into the sky, it turned out that the primary mirror (manufactured to a degree of accuracy of less than 10 nanometres - around 100th the width of a thread of spider's silk) was too flat at the edges. The optics company, who were already behind time and over budget, had ignored reported errors and sent off the mirror to NASA. This meant that the fainter objects Hubble had been sent up to photograph were obscured. Fitting a replacement mirror would have required bringing the telescope back to Earth, which was deemed to expensive. And so new optical components were added with exactly the reverse error. Problem solved!


Eyes on the sky - NASA will be launching Mars Rover MSL Curiousity before the end of the year, so here's hoping for better luck than the Russians.

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