The years have done little to dull our fascination with our mysterious, red neighbor planet. In 1976, the Viking 1 spacecraft represented our first Martian landing which was followed up by the Viking 2. In 1996, the Mars Pathfinder rover threw its hat into the ring, landing successfully one year later. These events sparked the beginnings of humanity’s exploration of the red planet in earnest, and with 2014 well underway, our curiosity has yet to be sated. What the future may hold for Mars and the possibilities are nothing short of monumental.
While the Mars Pathfinder was developed to carry out scientific objectives, the mission also served as a “proof-of-concept” for various technologies and procedures. This eventually gave rise to the Mars Exploration Rover (MERs) missions– Spirit and Opportunity. These MERs were launched in 2003 and safely landed on Mars in 2004. This year, on January 4, we celebrated the unprecedented 10th anniversary of Opportunity as it continues its sojourn across the red planet.
Along with Opportunity, Curiosity is another MER to touchdown upon the Martian surface. This car-sized rover is currently exploring the length of Gale Crater. The journey is estimated to last anywhere from 10 months to a year with the destination being Mount Sharp. Upon reaching its destination, Curiosity will study the geological history through the sedimentary layers to give us a better understanding of Mars’s ancient past. This endeavor has already sparked bigger and better rover programs, including a 2020 Rover Mission meant to reinforce NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, long-term robotic exploration and addressing the key questions of ancient Mars and the potential for life.
Of course, these studies will not be conducted entirely on the ground as 2014 also marks some new arrivals that will enter into Martian orbit. The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) probe is scheduled to enter orbit around Mars in September and will analyze the rate of atmospheric escape. The goal is to gain a greater understanding of how Mars lost its atmosphere and its water, a riddle that has baffled the scientific community and may even grant greater insight into our own planet’s atmospheric concerns.
The MAVEN probe won’t be alone. India’s Mangalyaan Mars Orbiter Mission probe is also scheduled to enter into orbit around the same timeframe. The probe is designed to gather data on the Martian climate and mineral composition. Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) also represents India’s first Mars probe and marks India as the first Asian country to reach the red planet.
All of these promising endeavors and those still yet to come are intended to expand our understanding of our celestial neighbor. By better understanding the ancient past of Mars and its potential for harboring life – both in its ancient past and our potential future – we can effectively case the planet and plan accordingly for humanity’s eventual arrival by the 2030s. The future of Mars is one filled with promises of exploration and discovery. However, the planet may well hold our future as we struggle to leave our earthly cradle and expand into the unknown.
Robyn Johnston is a writer primarily covering science and technology. Her favorite topics involve space and space exploration.