Missions to Mars: The Eagle Has Not Quite Landed

Nathan Chandler

Image: Shutterstock

About This Quiz

The Red Planet has captivated humankind for centuries. It holds tantalizing evidence of water and maybe even extinct (or well-hidden) lifeforms. How much do you know about the missions that humans have sent to Mars?

Humans have been sending missions to Mars for a long time. In which decade did the first Mars mission happen?

The first Mars missions happened in the early part of the 1960s. Thanks to the "Space Race," humans quickly expanded their reach in space.

Which country was the first to attempt a Mars mission?

The U.S. might have the best list of space successes, but Americans aren't always first in space missions. The U.S.S.R. made several Mars attempts before America.

The U.S.S.R. had years of headstarts before the U.S. even got off of the ground. How many U.S.S.R. missions preceded the first U.S. mission?

The Soviets attempted five missions before Americans tried even one. All of the Soviet missions failed for various reasons, mainly launch problems.

The first Mars mission ever was in 1960. When did a lander mission finally touch down on the planet's surface?

The Soviets finally managed to land a couple of landers in 1971. But the first lander totally failed and the second worked for just a few moments before permanently malfunctioning.

America's first Mars missions were all called "Mariner" missions. Which Mariner mission was the first to succeed?

In November of 1964, the Mariner 4 mission accomplished its goal, a flyby of the Red Planet. It was the first mission to create photos of Mars that were then sent back to Earth.

Mariner 4 was a triumphant success for NASA. How many pictures did it send to technicians on Earth?

Mariner 4 might have been a revolutionary success, but it wasn't exactly prolific. The spacecraft sent only 21 images back to NASA before being damaged by tiny meteoroids.

Mariner 3 didn't make it to Mars. What happened to the spacecraft?

The craft experienced an unknown glitch after it was blasted into orbit. Just hours later, NASA officials threw up their hands and gave up on the now-worthless piece of space junk.

The determined Soviets sent up failed mission after failed mission. After their first attempt in 1960, how long did it take them to finally mount a fairly successful mission?

After nine failures and 11 years, the Soviets finally managed some success with Mars 2, which launched in 1971. The craft managed to orbit Mars, but the lander portion was a complete failure.

Following the success of Mariner 4, what happened to Mariner 5?

Mariner 5 was meant as a backup to Mariner 4. Following 4's success, 5 was tweaked and then rerouted to Venus, where it performed a successful flyby.

Starting in 1960, there were numerous lander failures. How long did it take for a space organization to finally land a successful lander that actually performed its assigned tasks?

After the first missions in the early 60s, NASA finally broke through with a successful lander mission in 1976. The Viking I was a massive breakthrough for space exploration.

A Soviet mission transmitted the very first image from the surface of Mars.

In 1971, the Soviets sent off their Mars 3 mission, which landed on the Red Planet. The lander managed to send part of a black-and-white image just before it permanently failed.

What was the name of the first successful Mars rover?

In 1996, NASA sent a small rover named Sojourner to Mars. It landed on July 4, 1997 and crawled the surface of Mars for more than two months before going kaput.

In 1992, NASA's Mars Observer mission failed. Why?

No one knows for sure, but it's likely that a fuel line developed a leak and shot fuel all over sensitive electronics. As you probably know, that's never a good thing.

The Soviets actually landed the first rover on Mars. Why didn't the Prop-M rover succeed on its mission?

Poor Prop-M didn't even get a tiny taste of the Martian surface. Just a few moments after the craft landed, the lander itself malfunctioned, bringing the mission to a quick and unsatisfying end.

In 1996, the Russians launched Mars 96. What happened to this mission?

Mars 96 had a huge arsenal of tools that would have made some amazing observations of Mars. Unfortunately, the launch rocket did a major U-turn and crashed into Earth.

What extremely interesting object was onboard Mars 96 when it crashed?

The craft contained radioactive plutonium fuel critical to the mission. Instead, the rocket failed and that plutonium is out there, somewhere, perhaps on your grandma's farm.

The Sojourner rover mission lasted about 80 Martian sols (days). The mission was actually slated to last about how many Martian sols?

Engineers were crossing their fingers for the mission to last about seven sols. Their careful planning, however, helped to stretch the incredibly successful mission to about 84 sols

Why did the Soviets quickly launch failure after failure instead of slowing down to more carefully build and launch their missions?

The space race caused all sorts of irrational behavior in both the U.S. and U.S.S.R., and the Soviets really wanted to be first to accomplish some major feats on Mars. Instead, NASA's more deliberate approach typically won out.

The Viking 2 mission successfully landed a lander on Mars. Why did the lander eventually stop working?

Maybe they needed to use a few more AA batteries? The Viking 2 lander's batteries gave out, but not before it gathered useful data and sent it back to Earth.

Instruments onboard the Viking 2 returned results that indicated a history of life on Mars.

Not one, but two instruments on the lander sent back data that seemed to confirm evidence of life on Mars. Some scientists are still certain that the measurements were accurate, but so far, no one has managed to confirm life on the Red Planet.

The Viking mission made a fascinating discovery. What was it?

Using sensors that sampled the atmosphere, Viking 2 confirmed that Mars was the source of many meteorites that have been found on Earth.

What was Mars Pathfinder?

Pathfinder was the lander that touched down and unleashed the Sojourner rover in 1997. It also contained instruments used to conduct successful scientific experiments.

The Mars Pathfinder was one of the most expensive missions in NASA's history.

Developed in the 1990s, it was meant to prove that NASA could create successful missions on a shorter timeline and a limited budget. It cost just a fraction of the crazy-expensive Viking missions.

In 1988, the Russians launched the Phobos 1 mission. Why did this mission fail?

A technician sent a command to the craft and there was one tiny typo. That typo caused Phobos to malfunction and destroyed the mission.

What was the critical Phobos 1 typo?

The luckless technician neglected to include a single hyphen. In a series of events that sounds like a "Far Side" cartoon, that single missing hyphen resulted in an erroneous command that caused the craft to malfunction.

In 2011, China launched its first Mars mission. Where did the craft wind up?

The Yinhuo-1 mission made it to Earth orbit, but then its engines failed. The craft got stuck in orbit until gravity pulled it backed into the atmosphere, where it disintegrated.

In 2013, NASA launched its MAVEN mission. What does MAVEN stand for?

MAVEN stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN Mission. Its primary mission is to study the planet's complex atmosphere.

As of early 2017, there are still a number of active missions still happening on or around Mars. How many operational missions are ongoing?

There are currently eight ongoing missions. Two NASA rovers are still wheeling about, and six orbiters are circling the huge planet, gathering data in huge chunks.

Of the eight operational missions, how many are NOT controlled by NASA?

Five of the ongoing missions are NASA projects. One is guided by the European Space Agency, one is from India and the other is a joint project through the ESA and Russian space program.

Which area's organization launched the successful Mars Orbiter Mission?

India launched Mars Orbiter Mission in 2014. It was the country's first Mars mission and its primary objective is to advance space technologies for future missions.

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