Get Your Lander To Mars!

It looks like we have to stay goodbye to the European Space Agency’s latest attempt to land a robot on Mars. Just like their previous outing, the Beagle 2, it was landing the equipment on the surface of the Red Planet that was their Achilles’ heel. So why does this keep going wrong for them, or, more to the point, why don’t they just do it the way NASA does? Here is a brief run-down of the attempts to land man-made objects on the face of the God of War.

The first success in smashing a lander to pieces on Mars goes to the Mars 2 of the Soviet Union. In many ways, the landing system was very similar to Schiaparelli, and it had a very similar fate. A braking shield would slow the initial drop through the Martian atmosphere, a parachute opens once the module is going slow enough, and finally retro rockets fire before the whole thing plonks onto the red dust. Once down, panels would open up like petals to right the module and release the lander. None of that happened. No one is sure why, but not one stage of this actually played out and the module impacted at top speed onto the ground, likely completely destroyed. Undeterred, the Russians tried again with Mars 3, to great success! Well, partial success. Well, about 15 seconds of success, then all signals stopped, again for reasons unknown.


In total, the Russians have attempted to land 9 missions on Mars, and Mars 3 was probably their best success. Over all, the Americans have done much better.

NASA has a far from perfect score when it comes to Mars, but their first attempts at landers were the very definition of successful missions. Viking 1 and Viking 2 between them operated for a total of 3526 days. That’s nearly a decade of data. Just excellent! They worked in pretty much exactly the same way – heat shield, parachute, retrorockets. The main difference here was NASA landed their experiment rigt-way-up in the first place, on shock absorbing legs. For whatever reason, on July 20 and August 7, 1976 the fates were smiling on NASA and both landers touched down safely and worked wonderfully. These were static landers, rather than rovers, but nevertheless, this was a great step forward for space exploration.

Next along came the Pathfinder and Sojourner mission and NASA went right off the rails. Not content with a simple and straight forward solution, one that they had proved worked so well, NASA decided that the best thing to do was to bounce their new lander and rover along the Martian surface inside a pyramid of airbags. More crazy than the fact that they tried this, was the fact that it worked, and Sojourner pootled around on Mars for 84 days. For their next mission, the Polar Lander, NASA went back to the usual, tried and tested method, unfortunately communication was lost during landing and never recovered.


The European Space Agency, so impressed with NASA’s mental bouncing bomb idea, decided to go for it themselves with their first lander attempt, Beagle 2. And indeed, craziest of crazies, it worked again. Now, I know what you’re thinking, ‘didn’t he say before that it failed?’. Well, only kind of. The lander made it safely enough to the surface of Mars, but upon landing, the solar panels that were supposed to unfold to power the lander failed to deploy, and it simply never booted up. Theoretically, if you went and unfolded it now, it might still have a chance of working.

Looking to add insult to injury and to show the ESA how it’s done, NASA went back to the bouncy pyramid to land the twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, both successfully, before going back to the basics for the phoenix lander 4 years later. Finally, NASA’s latest, and in many ways most incredible rover mission: Curiosity. This was, in the first part, more of the same – heat shield, parachute, retrorockets. Just before landing, however, NASA got ambitious. Every other time this method has been used, including with the ill-fated Schiaparelli, the landing module has been left to just hit the surface, with some kind of shock absorber to soften the landing. Curiosity went another way. The whole contraption stopped just short of the surface of Mars and hovered – yes, hovered – while something they called the ‘sky crane’ lowered the rover on to the surface. That was four years ago and it is still going strong. NASA think that it might go for a total of up to 15 years! No small accomplishment by any measure.

Ultimately, Schiaparelli, which went about it the tried and tested, old fashioned retrorocket and drop method, should have worked. For whatever reason, the rockets fired too soon and too short and the spaceship blasted into the surface of Mars at break-neck, or break-rover, speed. Hopefully, the ESA can learn from this for their next attempt and finally get on the score board of fully successful Mars missions. Looking back, the crazier, bouncier, more fun idea of pinballing you spaceship around the red planet, actually seems to be the more successful. So maybe, just maybe, madness is the way forward on Mars.

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