The Mars Curse: Missions That Never Made It

Check out The Mars Curse: Missions That Never Made It

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Aug. 1, 2012 --

The ancient Greeks and Romans were very prescient when it came to naming Mars for their god of war. Even after 50 years of flying probes to Mars, it is a battle every time to have one arrive safely. More often than not Earthlings lose. "You can't test and entry, descent and landing system end-to-end on the Earth. It's wrong gravity, wrong atmospheric structure, so a lot of this is analysis and that is why Mars wins an awful lot of the time," said NASA's Mars program chief Doug McCuistion. Even if the engineering is perfect, Mother Nature has a mean streak on Mars. "The atmosphere blooms. You can get dust storms. You can get wind. We don't have the capability to predict those things," McCuistion said. Here's a look at some of the most famous Mars flops:

Mariner 3

The Soviet Union not only launched the first satellite and the first person into space, it also dispatched the first probes to Mars. Four of those early forays, which took place between October 1960 and November 1962, never made it out of Earth orbit. A fifth spacecraft's radio failed en route to the Red Planet. NASA followed up in November 1964 with its Mariner 3 spacecraft, but didn't fare any better. The protective shroud covering the probe failed to open, dooming the mission.

Mars 3

After eight failed missions, the Soviets had a bit of luck with Mars 3, an orbiter and lander that arrived on Dec. 3, 1971. But before the celebrations could begin, the party was over. The lander lasted less than 20 seconds before an unknown technical problem cut off communications with Earth. Half of one picture was received (shown here). The glitch also killed plans for deployment of a tiny tethered rover. The orbiter fared better despite being put into a loopy orbit because of a fuel shortage. In addition to pictures, the probe sent back information about the planet's temperature, atmosphere and dust storms.

Mars Observer

It took the United States 17 years to follow up its successful Viking missions with a sophisticated orbiter to give scientists a more global view of Mars. The one-ton Mars Observer was successfully launched on Sept. 25, 1992. Disaster struck 11 months later when the probe, just three days away from arrival, fell silent. An accident investigation determined a rupture in the spacecraft's propellant system was most likely to blame. Science instruments developed for Mars Observer were remade for future probes.

Climate Orbiter and Polar Lander

NASA got back in the Mars exploration business with the stunningly successful Pathfinder mission in 1997. The question of life on Mars, presumably nixed by the Viking findings, took on a new life after scientists reported finding what they believed was fossilized bacteria in a Martian meteorite. Glee quickly turned to despair when problems claimed NASA's next two Mars probes. Mars Climate Orbiter was lost in September 1999 due to a mix-up of metric and imperial measurements. Polar Lander's demise followed less than three months later. Engineers believe its landing engine shut down early, causing the probe to crash to the surface.

No-Go Nozomi

Newcomers to Mars exploration haven't fared much better than the veterans. Japan's first interplanetary probe, Nozomi, spent five years trying to get to Mars. With the probe hopelessly off-course and out of fuel, attempts to put it into orbit were called off in December 2003. China's Yinghuo-1 Mars orbiter piggybacked a ride on the Russian Phobos-Grunt mission. None made it out of Earth orbit.

Beagle 2

The Beagle 2 lander piggybacked the European Space Agency's Mars Express mission to the Red Planet in 2003. Built by a consortium of British companies, universities and organizations, the small lander was designed to specifically hunt for signs of Martian life. Unfortunately, while in Mars orbit, the lander separated from the satellite and disappeared. It is still unknown what exactly happened to the only British mission to Mars, but it is widely believed that the probe suffered complications during entry causing it to burn up in the Martian atmosphere or hit the ground at high speed. Orbital attempts to spot the crash site have so far failed.


The Russians are nothing if not determined, particularly when it comes to exploring Mars. But their last attempt, an ambitious mission to return samples from Mars' moon Phobos, ended shortly after launch last November. A failed engine burn left the spacecraft stranded in Earth orbit. It fell back through the atmosphere in January. It was the Russian's 19th attempt to get to Mars. Only five met with partial success.