Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Mars: spacecraft graveyard

Over 60% of missions to Mars have failed.

That was in an article in the Washington Post today.  This comes just a few weeks before the planned August 6th landing of the NASA probe, Curiousity.  This probe will be a mobile laboratory that will rove Mars and study rock and soil samples for signs of life past or present.  That is if we can get it there in the first place.  Doug McCuistion, the head of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, confessed to the Post that he fears the probe's heat shield may not detach as planned before landing.

“If you look at the scorecard, Earth is doing less than 50 percent; less than 50 percent of Earth’s missions to Mars have been successful,” McCuistion said.

He's right.  If something goes wrong on or before August 6th...and I by no means wish it to...it's not it will be alone.  Workers at NASA have even jokingly referred to a "Galactic Ghoul" that devours spacecraft headed for Mars.  This chart from NASA gives a good rundown of every explroation program that failed and succeeded to reach Mars.  It's not just us.  The Russians, the British, the Japanese have all had their share.  Mars appears to be an equal opportunity spacecraft destroyer.

Of course this record is fertile ground for conspiracy theories.  The missions are intentionally lost so as not to send back images of the "artifacts" on the Martian surface, such as the infamous "face."  The missions are shown to be defunct or lost only to be clandestinely reactivated as part of the "secret space program."  Or someone...or something...really doesn't want us on Mars.  Many point to the 1988 case of the Russian Phobos 1 and Phobos 2 probes.

Phobos 1 and Phobos 2 disappeared under strange circumstances.  The then-Soviets weren't all that forthcoming with the reasons why (shocker!) but they eventually released video footage taken by Phobos 2 just before it went silent.  P2 had actually made it to Mars orbit and was taking video of both the surface of the planet and its moon, Phobos.  The probe spotted bizarre, dark, straight-line forms on the surface.  The last bits of footage show an object coming straight towards the probe.  An ectopic object that should not be there according to astronomers.  Evidence at last of alien activity on Mars?

More likely that it's just damned difficult to mount a successful mission to any planet, not just Mars.  Human error has a great deal to do with it too.  The failed 1999 landing is a prime example of that as a metric conversion was never carried out by one or more of the engineers.  Scherzando theories are good for fiction writing, but in reality, space missions are hard work and fraught with danger.

There are enough variables to explain what goes wrong without any "galactic ghouls."

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