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The 1970s Soviet Mission to Mars

On 18th February 2021, those on NASA’s Perseverance team held their breath. As the most technologically advanced and largest robotic system ever to land on Mars drifted down through the Red Planet’s atmosphere, there was little anybody back on Earth could do except wait and hope that the rover, the size of a small car, would land safely.

As news of its safe touchdown reached the team, the relief and joy on their faces were clear to see. Over the next week, Perseverance began sending images and audio back from the surface of Mars. The world, still gripped by the ongoing health pandemic, watched in delighted fascination. And yet, this intrepid explorer sent from Earth was only the most recent visitor to the planet widely regarded as the most likely to be able to accommodate a human colony at some point. 

While we are still undoubtedly many years away from this, our visits to Mars are becoming more frequent. And it all started back in the 1970s when the Soviet Union became the first nation to land on Mars. If that piece of information is a surprise to you, that’s because this is a story rarely told.  

Mars

OSIRIS Mars true color.
OSIRIS Mars true color.By ESA & MPS for OSIRIS Team is licensed under CC-BY-SA

There is an aura around Mars. The fourth planet from the sun lies roughly 260 million km (161 million miles) from Earth and in terms of planets that we might one day inhabit, it’s difficult to look anywhere else. 

It’s not exactly a big planet, in fact, you could fit just over 6 Mars’ inside the Earth in terms of volume. Despite its blistering desert-esque landscape, Mars has an average temperature of -63C (-61F) and has the kind of carbon dioxide dominated atmosphere that is deeply unkind to us oxygen lovers. 

What I’m trying to say is that Mars isn’t exactly the poster child for habitable planets but it’s certainly as close as we’re going to get – for the time being at least. That probably says more about our lack of options than about Mars’ welcoming factors. Venus is a swirling mass of deadly clouds masking a battered surface of volcanoes and deformed mountains with a toasty surface temperature of 467 °C (872 °F) – the hottest in the entire Solar System in case you’re interested. So Venus is out.  

Things are a bit more hopeful if we go the other way and while Saturn itself is far from ideal for us, its moons might be a different story. Enceladus and Titan both appear to have internal oceans of some kind, and it’s not inconceivable that they might be able to support life. But then we have to think about distance. At 1.5637 billion km (932 million miles) from Earth, it would take between 6 and 8 years to get there, which certainly puts long car journeys in perspective.  

This brings us back to our nearest neighbour, named after the Roman God of War, Mars. 

The Space Race    

With the launch of Sputnik 1 on 4th October 1957, the Space Race which had fizzled at best up until that point exploded into life. As the Americans gazed up at the night’s sky and watched the Soviet satellite pass overhead, there must have been a sinking realisation that those suspicious Reds across the Pacific had got a jump on them. 

Suddenly pride and prestige were on the line as both nations threw everything they had into the space race – and the arms race, but that’s a different story. One that we have recently covered here on Megaprojects so if you’re interested in that titanic Cold war slugfest between the two global superpowers, then why not give it a watch after this. 

The interesting aspect of the space race was that it came with several offshoots and numerous milestones that both seemed eager to achieve first. The Soviets held the upper hand during the early stages and put not only the first satellite in space but also the first living being (a dog named Leika) and the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit. 

As I’m sure aware, the U.S were the first to place a human on the moon when Neil Armstrong took his one giant leap for mankind on 24th July 1969, which left a far more distant and more complex challenge. Who would be the first to fly past, orbit and finally, land on Mars?  

Race to the Red Planet    

Even before the Americans planted the stars and stripes on the rocky surface of the Moon, the Soviet Union and the U.S had made countless attempts to get to Mars. Between 1960 and 1969, there were no less than 12 individual missions to the Red Planet – 8 by the Soviets and 4 by the Americans. 

Now you may well find that figure puzzlingly high considering we weren’t even into the 1970s, but it might seem much more reasonable when I tell you that every single one of the Soviet missions failed, with the majority not even making it into space. Six suffered launch failures, while the remaining two are classed as ‘spacecraft failures’ with both losing communications before they could complete their planned fly-bys. 

The Americans on the other hand attempted just four missions to Mars during this period. The first of which, Mariner 3, also failed to launch, but its successor Mariner 4 became the first object to complete a planned flyby of our neighbouring planet on 14th and 15th July 1965. 

I don’t think I’ve ever said these words out loud, but you’ve got to feel a little sorry for the Soviet Union at this point. The 1960s saw little good news for the USSR in its race to Mars against the United States. 

On 30th November 1964, Zond 2 was successfully launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in modern-day Kazakhstan and began its long flight to Mars. It seemed as if the Soviet luck had finally turned – but it was not to be. Six months after launch, all communications with Zond 2 were lost and while they were able to track it as it flew past Mars on 6th August 1965, its cameras and infrared spectrometer were essentially useless as the information couldn’t be returned to Earth. Close, but no cigar. 

To rub salt in the wound, the Americans completed two more successful flybys on 31st July and 5th August 1969 and also landed on the moon in the same summer. It was a triple whammy that left the Soviet space program reeling. They were slipping further and further behind the United States and that just wouldn’t do. 

The Mars Missions             

The early rounds of the space race had been won decisively by the Soviet Union, but the 1960s saw the United States hurdle over them and disappear into the distance. The Soviets, however, had one last trick up their sleeve. 

Maybe it was the ignominy of watching the Americans walk on the moon and seeing the U.S satellites pass Mars as planned, but the Soviets upped their game as the 1970s dawned. The early missions under the Soviet Mars Program had been nothing short of disastrous, but all of a sudden things began to click. And what’s more, they were no longer simply interested in flying past and taking pictures. If the Americans had been the first to land a man-made object on the moon, the Soviet Union was sure as hell going to be the first to land something on the surface of Mars. 

The Three Amigos 

Within three weeks of one another in May 1971, the Soviet Union launched three separate spacecraft, all of which were destined for Mars. The first on 10th May was Kosmos 419, an orbiter that the Soviets hoped would be able to beat both Mariner 8 and Mariner 9 launched by the U.S to become the first object to successfully orbit the Red Planet. Importantly, it would also act as a radar beacon for the two missions hot on its heels, Mars 2 launched on 19th May and Mars 3 launched on 28th May, both of which came with a small lander designed to land on the surface of Mars. 

But alas, things went wrong almost immediately as Kosmos 419 failed to depart low Earth orbit after a malfunction in one of its engines. It was a bad start, but just over two weeks later, and after two successful lift-offs, the Soviet Space Program still had two separate crafts speeding towards Mars – things were looking up. 

Mars 2 and Mars 3

Both Mars 2 and Mars 3 were launched on the back of a Proton K rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. The rockets consisted of three different stages that took the probes into a parking orbit before its Blok D upper stage ignited, sending Mars 2 and the Mars 3 onto their trans-Mars trajectory. The two space probes now hurtling through space were essentially identical and contained both an orbiter and lander, tasked with two very different sub-missions.

Orbiter 

Included on both probes was the 4MV type orbiter, weighing in at 3,440 kg (7,580 lb) – that’s just shy of the average weight of a hippo. They were designed primarily to photograph the surface of Mars while also acting as a relay point for information coming up from the lander on the surface. Both were scheduled to perform a burn as they approached Mars that would put the probes into a 24,940 km (15,496 miles) altitude, 18-hour orbit around the planet. 

Lander

But as complex as the Orbiter’s job was, it was nothing compared to actually landing on Mars. The landing system was composed of a spherical 1.2 metre (3.9ft) diameter landing capsule, a 2.9 metres (9.5ft) diameter conical aerodynamic braking shield, a parachute system and retro-rockets. 

Altitude control was adjusted using an automatic control system consisting of gas micro-engines and pressurized nitrogen containers, while four solid-fuel motors located on the edge of the lander controlled pitch and yaw. It came with a main and auxiliary parachute located in the top section of the lander along with a radar altimeter to indicate how high from the ground it was. 

Anything parachuting down to a solid surface is still going to experience quite a bump and the Soviets went with good old fashioned foam to absorb the shock of the landing. Once the module had landed, four triangular petals would open, hopefully righting the lander if it had landed awkwardly, and revealing the scientific instruments below.  

It had two TV cameras, both providing 360-degree views along with a spectrometer to study atmospheric composition, temperature, pressure, and wind sensors and a small scoop to dig into the ground to look for signs of life. As I mentioned, the Orbiters above them were designed to act as a relay for the information coming up from the landers via four aerials on the top of the module. 

The lander also came with a Prop M Rover, also known by the less snazzy name, the Passability Estimating Vehicle for Mars. Compared to the Perseverance Rover that recently landed on Mars, this small box rover was tiny at just 25 cm × 22 cm × 4 cm (9.8 x 8.6 x 1.5 inches) and weighed only 4.5 kg (9.9 lbs). Instead of wheels, it came with a set of skis and was connected to the main lander module by a 15-meter (49.2 ft) umbilical cable. Considering how long radio signals would take to send from Earth, the rovers were more or less autonomous and came with two small metal rods at the front to be used to shove small obstacles out of the way if needed. It also came with a dynamic penetrometer, to test the strength of the soil found and a gamma-ray densitometer, an instrument for measuring optical density.

The Main Event

As Mars 2 and Mars 3 neared the Red Plant, Soviet hopes were dealt a double blow. First and foremost, because it all came down to prestige didn’t it, the Soviet spacecraft had been passed by Mariner 9, a U.S space probe that went on to become the first man-made object to ever enter another planet’s orbit. 

Mariner 9 had blasted off two days after Mars 3, but its faster speed meant that it arrived on 14 November, two weeks before the Soviet probes. The USSR would not be the first nation to orbit Mars but they could still be the first to land something successfully on the planet. But even here, fortunes were against them. 

As luck would have it, when Mariner 9 arrived at Mars, the largest dust storm ever seen by astronomers was tearing around the planet. So much so that the surface was completely obscured and Mariner 9 was reprogrammed to delay much of its scientific work for several months until the dust settled. 

However, the incoming Soviet probes didn’t have the luxury of time. Mars 2 was the first to arrive and entered Mars’ orbit on 27th November 1971 before immediately deploying its lander. It took 4 and half hours for the lander to reach Mars once it had been deployed, but after hurtling through the atmosphere at speeds of roughly 6km/s (3.7 miles per second), the descent system malfunctioned and the lander’s parachutes failed to open. Mars 2 may not have been the first rover to send back images from Mars, but it was the first man-made object to smash into Mars. All hopes now rested on Mars 3. 

Mars 3 entered the planet’s orbit on December 2nd 1971 and again immediately detached its lander module. Like its comrade just days before, the lander took just over four and half hours to reach Mars, but this time, the parachutes, aerodynamic braking and retro rockets worked to a tee and the lander module from Mars 3, became the first object to achieve a soft landing on the surface of Mars. 

Now, 90 seconds is not a long time, but I’m willing to bet that for those who were watching events unfold back in the Soviet Union, it must have seemed like an eternity. 90 seconds after Mars 3 touched down, it began communicating. For the first time in history, humans were receiving information coming from the Red Planet. 

It was a colossal achievement and one which lasted just 20 seconds. Suddenly power was lost and all communication ceased, it was the last we would ever hear of the lander from Mars 3. But in that short space on time, it did send something back. 

A partial image, composed of just 70 lines, arrived back in the Soviet Union. It’s impossible to see anything in the image and simply looks like an old-fashioned black and white tv screen when it all goes wrong, but make no mistake about it, this is technically the first-ever image of Mars’ surface. However, the picture was deemed so bad by the Soviet Union that it was never released at the time.  

But all was not lost for the two Soviet missions. The orbiters of both Mars 2 and Mars 3 continued to send back images and other information between December 1971 and March 1972. In August 1972, the Soviet Union announced both missions were complete and communications with the two probes ceased shortly after.

While the landers had not been able to send back the kind of desired information, generally speaking, the missions were seen as partial successes, thanks to the 60 pictures the two orbiters sent back to Earth. Photos that for the first time revealed mountains of up to 22km (13.6 miles) in height, atomic hydrogen and oxygen in the upper atmosphere, a dramatic swing in surface temperature from −110 °C to +13 °C and surface pressure of between 5.5 to 6 mb – which is less than 1% of that on Earth. 

It had been a mixed bag and high and lows for the Soviet Space Program, but Mars 2 and Mars, along with their Yankee friend Mariner 9, helped to completely redefine our understanding of the Red Planet.

The Future of Mars Travel 

You need only look at the excitement surrounding NASA’s Perseverance Rover to see just how captivating a mission to Mars still is. There is something astonishing about looking at a picture sent back from a small machine crawling across the surface of another planet 260 million km (161 million miles) away. 

Mars has long been our ambition, and as I mentioned earlier, our only real choice in setting up another colony on a different planet. This may all sound like complete science fiction at the moment, but the truth is we are getting closer. Ok, we’re still some way off sending humans to Mars but these steps are certainly going in the right direction. And let’s not forget, the first step, came nearly 50 years ago with a 20-second transmission for the surface of Mars. 

Exploration of Mars – Wikipedia

The Soviet Mars Shot That Almost Everyone Forgot (rferl.org)

A 1979 Mars Rover Mission (1970) | WIRED

The First Rover on Mars – The Soviets Did It… | The Planetary Society

New Mars Photos May Reveal 1970s Soviet Lander | Space

Mars 3 – Wikipedia

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