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Blues For The Red Planet


THE LAUNCH failure of a Russian probe to Mars is the latest in a long line of flawed missions to the Red Planet. Martin Hickes reports.

IN terms of voyages into the unknown, Mars is rapidly becoming the most jinxed planet in the Solar System.

The launch accident of the latest probe to Mars, the so-far ill-fated Phobos-Grunt probe, which has entered earth’s orbit after veering off course at the start of its 33 day mission, will only heighten astro-scientists’ anxieties about future trips to the Red Planet.

The probe, which suffered an engine failure at its launch from Baikonur in Russia, was due to land on Phobos, one of the satellites of Mars, and return soil samples from such.

Even for the most sceptical observers of jinxes, the statistics do seem to point to strange goings on with regard to voyages to the Red Planet.

In fact, the high failure rate of missions from Earth attempting to explore Mars has become informally known in the space and astro-watchers community as the "Mars Curse".

And the "Great Galactic Ghoul" is a fictional space monster jokingly said to consume Mars missions, a term coined in 1997 by a Time magazine journalist.

Of 38 launches from Earth in an attempt to reach the planet, only 19 have succeeded, a success rate of just 50%.

Twelve of the missions have included attempts to land on the surface, but only seven transmitted data after landing.

Britain’s most famous Martian failure was Beagle 2 back in 2003-4 which lost contact after it separated from the Mars Express probe.

Prior to that, five of the seven probes sent to Mars have ended in failure.

The US’s Mars Observer, Mars Climate Observer and Mars Polar Lander/Deep Space 2 missions all suffered either crash lands or a lack of contact, while a Japanese and a Russian probe also encountered problems either en route or on the hostile surface of Earth’s neighbour.

The Mars Climate Observer’s failure hit the headlines in 1999 when a a metric-imperial measurement mix up caused the probe to enter the atmosphere at too low an altitude, causing it to burn up.

The U.S,/NASA Mars exploration program has had a somewhat better record of success in Mars exploration, achieving success in 13 out of 20 missions launched (a 65% success rate), and having succeeded in six out of seven (an 86% success rate) lander missions.

However in the late 60s and 70s it was a very different story.

The first successful fly-by of Mars was in 1967 by Mariner 4; but after that the US and the then Soviet Union failed in their bid to launch four successive orbiter probes to such.

Mariner 9 completed the first successful orbit in 1971, followed swiftly by the USSR’s Mars 2 probe.

However while the latter successfully achieved orbit, its lander - which would have been the first to land on the Red Planet, also failed.

And while Mars 3 made a successful landing in Dec 1971, the first to do so, it ceased radio transmissions back to earth after just 15 seconds.

Mars 4 missed its orbit shot and only made a fly-by; Mars 5 entered orbit but failed to transmit data, and Mars 6 landed on Mars but again failed to transmit data.

And even the last of the Soviet ill-fated ‘Mars’ series had problems, its landing probe separating prematurely causing the probe to career into an irregular orbit.

It wasn’t until July 1976 that the Viking 1 landed on the planet and successfully transmitted pictures of the Martian surface back to an expectant world in what could be described as being the most successful mission to Mars. Viking 2 also landed.

It perhaps goes without saying that the next scheduled mission to Mars - NASA’s perhaps aptly title Curiosity probe - which is set to be launched on November 25 - will be scrutinised very closely on its voyage to the most unpredictable of planets.

The rover is set to explore Mars’s suitability for possible habitation and will try to determine whether the planet ever did or could at some point support basic forms of life, among other planned projects.


  • The majority of the failed missions have occurred in the early years of space exploration.

  • Viking 1 and 2 were the most successful of Mars landers in the 1970s, while the Spirit and Opportunity Rovers have successfully scowered parts of Mars in recent years.

  • The Chinese Mars Orbiter Yinghuo-1 was also sent with the current mission along with the LIFE flight experiment funded by the Planetary Society.