The Sciences

Will the Phoenix Lander End Up a Hero-bot or a Pile of Trash?

Many landers have tried to touch down on the Red Planet. Few have succeeded.

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Photo Credits: Image credit: NASA

The USSR's Mars 2 made the first attempted landing on the Mars surface in 1971. It carried all the necessities: sensors to study the atmosphere, television cameras, and a pennant displaying the Soviet coat of arms (hammer and sickle all the way). A small rover was attached to the lander by a 50-foot umbilical cord, and was intended to navigate the surrounding terrain on a pair of skis.

But the rover never had a chance to test its slalom skills. The parachute didn't deploy during the lander's descent and Mars 2 crashed on the surface. In the USSR's next attempt, the Mars 3 made a successful soft landing but stopped broadcasting 20 seconds later.

Photo Credits: Image credit: NASA/JPL

Those plucky little NASA rovers! The robotic pair landed on opposite sides of the planet in January 2004, and have far exceeded their expected lifespans of 3 months. Instead, over 4 years later, Spirit and Opportunity are still trucking over the terrain, snapping photos like tourists and digging trenches in the dirt.

The crafts that held the rovers were cocooned in airbags during their landings, which allowed them to bounce and roll over the surface. Once the rovers rolled out, they began exploring craters and hillsides, and eventually discovered gullies that may have been carved by liquid water during a warmer era of Martian history.

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