Written by Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Virginia Living Museum. Updated every two weeks, more or less.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Mars Attacks!

Well, actually, when you get right down to it...we're the ones attacking Mars.

Even as I write, the latest in a long series of robotic explorers is on its way to the Red Planet.  The Mars Science Laboratory, with its already-famous rover, Curiosity, launched toward Mars on November 26 of last year and is expected to touch down on the Martian soil in the wee morning hours of August 6, 2012.  If you're a devotee of Mars-exploring robots, you can sit up and watch the landing at the Virginia Air & Space Center, NASA Langley's Visitor Center.  Some folks from the Virginia Living Museum will be on hand too, discussing the ever-popular question of whether life ever got a foothold on Mars.

Mars is a tough planet to land on.

The road to Mars is a hard one, and landing on the surface is an even greater challenge.  Kind of like the superstitions surrounding the Scottish Play in the theater world, there's a long-held fear of Mars in the space exploration community.  It is definitely picky about what probes it chooses to welcome.  Half of all the missions ever sent to the Red Planet have ended in failure.

Russia's Phobos (meaning fear; also the name of one of Mars' two moons) 1 and 2 both suffered from the "Mars Curse."  Phobos 1 died of a software glitch - it lost its lock on the Sun, and since it was running on solar power, that was the end of that.  Phobos 2 seems to have suffered a similar fate - after a successful Mars orbit insertion and just prior to the scheduled release of two landing probes, contact was lost and never regained.  While the official explanation is an onboard computer failure...the subject of alien tampering was raised, and has never really been silenced.

The last image taken by the Phobos 2 spacecraft.  The dark object is often claimed to be a UFO responsible for the loss of the craft, but is most likely a distorted shadow of the craft itself on the surface of Mars.

The U.S. craft Mars Observer was also mysteriously lost.  Three days before a planned Mars orbit insertion, engineers lost contact with the spacecraft.  We'll never know exactly what happened, but the most likely cause seems to have been a ruptured fuel tank which sent the craft into a massive tailspin.

Russia tried again with Mars 96, with disastrous results.  The fourth stage of the rocket failed to ignite, and the whole kit and caboodle came crashing back down to Earth.  The bulk of the craft seems to have landed in Chile, though no pieces of it were ever recovered.  Russian telemetry on the rocket was severely limited, and no specific cause for the crash was ever identified.

The Japanese tried reaching Mars with the Nozomi (meaning Wish or Hope) spacecraft, but a malfunctioning valve resulted in a loss of fuel so great that the poor craft was left with insufficient fuel to reach Mars orbit.  Some science did come out of the mission though - Nozomi was able to make 2 successful fly-bys of Earth and one of Mars.

Probably the most embarrassing loss of a spacecraft goes to the United States and Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO).  MCO was lost when it traveled out of communications by passing behind Mars 49 seconds earlier than expected.  Contact with the spacecraft was never re-established.  Turns out that while the spacecraft software was written expecting flight data in metric units, engineers on the ground were uploading the data in English units.  The spacecraft ended up flying too close to Mars, and likely disintegrated in the Martian atmosphere.  Oops.

We didn't do much better with Mars Polar Lander (MPL).  Contact with the spacecraft was lost during the descent phase as MPL tried to land at the Martian South Pole.  We never heard from the spacecraft again.  No trace of the craft was ever found, but the official explanation for the loss states that vibrations during the descent phase may have tricked the lander into thinking it was on the ground, and it shut off its thrusters, causing it to plummet the last 130 feet or so to a very hard, fatal landing.

Even the British have had trouble with Mars, losing a lander, Beagle 2 (named for the HMS Beagle, the ship that carried Charles Darwin on his famous voyages).  No explanation or cause has ever been agreed upon - the little lander simply disappeared and never made contact after descending towards the surface of the Red Planet.

Clearly, entry, descent and landing (EDL) is a tough time for a Mars-bound spacecraft.  NASA engineers often call the EDL phase the "7 minutes of terror."  This Saturday, we here at the Virginia Living Museum are going to be celebrating Mars with our monthly star party and laser light night...and we've got a special guest planned - NASA!  Exhibits all about Mars and Earth will be available, and Jill Prince, NASA's Mars EDL expert, will be giving a special talk about the 7 minutes of terror.  If the weather holds, we'll be looking at Mars with our telescopes all evening (plus peeking at Venus and Saturn too, I'm sure!), and there will even be a bit of Mars-themed music in the planetarium with Laser Mania!

So come join us for some Mars Mania this Saturday!  Mars activities and exhibits open at 5:30pm, Jill Prince speaks in the planetarium at 6pm, and observing begins after sunset.  All are FREE!  In the planetarium: at 7:30pm enjoy Virginia Skies (with a focus on Mars); 8:30pm see Laser Mania featuring "Attack of the Radioactive Hamsters from a Planet Near Mars" by Weird Al Yankovic; finish the night with a Laser Pink Floyd double feature: The Wall at 10pm and Dark Side of the Moon at 11:30pm.  All planetarium shows are $6, $10 for any two.  Members are always half price!

Don't forget to watch the news for information on the Mars Science Laboratory landing in August...and let's hope the Great Galactic Ghoul keeps his mitts off this one.

Carpe noctem!

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