Have We Overcome The Curse Of Mars? Episode 2
As you can see, the long process of space missions to Mars is full of failures: failures that have affected both the attempts to enter into orbit around the planet and those to land on its surface.
To date, there are 53 missions launched to Mars: the first one was the Soviet Mars 1 in 1960, the last one was InSight, NASA’s lander landed in the great expanse of Elysium Planitia on November 26, 2018. Of these 53 missions have failed 26: in practice 50%. And in the years 60-70, the percentage of failures reached 80%.
Anyway, apart from the curse… why is it so damm difficult to land on Mars?
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Landing on Mars or orbiting around it is difficult for various reasons. First of all, you have to get there, on Mars, and it is not an easy thing. In the most favorable case, which occurs about every two years, the distance between the Earth and the red planet is reduced to “only” 55 million kilometers.
But this distance – in itself not very short (144 times greater than the Earth-Moon distance!) – cannot be covered following a direct trajectory like that of an arrow thrown against a target hanging on the wall.
Mars and the Earth, are not stationary in space, but orbit around the Sun at different speeds. This means that to reach Mars you have to follow an elliptical trajectory, which contemplates the shift from Earth orbit to the Martian one: a very wide turn, which is technically called “Hohmann transfer”.
In this sort of space chase, the probe gradually reduces its distance from Mars, while both the aircraft and the planet continue to orbit around the Sun.
It is a trajectory that looks a bit like the launches made by a quarterback in American football: the quarterback does not throw the ball towards the point where his teammate is at that moment, but towards the point where he will be later, when the player, running while the ball is in the air, will cross the trajectory.
Because of this complication due to orbital motions, the distance to cover before arriving near Mars is multiplied: it is not more than 55 million kilometers, but more than 450! (more than a thousand times the distance Earth-Moon). And it can increase even more, if you choose to reach Mars using the Earth’s gravitational assists, which, at the price of a few more orbits traveled by spacecraft, guarantee an increase in speed sufficient to reach Mars using less propellant.
Depending on the chosen flight strategy, the time needed to cover the distance to Mars can vary between six months and a year, or even more. Everything can go wrong during this long trip, starting with the departure, which is the first critical moment of the venture.
Some missions directed to Mars, we have seen it in the review of all missions, failed immediately after the launch. If the launch is successful, the next critical moment becomes the encounter with Mars.
Centering the planet through the orbital tracking described above is not at all trivial: you have to perform some route correction maneuvers during the trip, whose magnitude depends on complex calculations, based on the determination of exactly where the probe and Mars are at a given time. If this knowledge is not precise enough, for example due to incomplete or wrong data sent by radio from the probe, it is fat4l that the encounter with Mars ends badly: either the aircraft misses the target and gets lost in space or it enters the Martian atmosphere and crashes to the ground.
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