NASA’s Spirit Mars rover makes its last contact with ground controllers on Earth. With the Martian winter fast approaching, and the rover’s wheels leaving it stuck in an unfavorable position to keep its solar panels angled toward the sun, Spirit gradually loses power until it shuts off, its mission having lasted nearly seven and a half years – almost 30 times its original design and mission lifespan of 90 days. Spirit’s ground controllers are reassigned to either Opportunity (which is still mobile and operating) or the upcoming Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover mission.
The Mars Science Laboratory mission is launched toward the red planet on an Atlas V rocket. The ambitious unmanned mission is intended to deposit a car-sized, nuclear-powered rover, nicknamed Curiosity, on the surface of Mars for an extended survey of the planet’s surface. Heavier than any of its predecessors, Curiosity will use an unprecedented means of slowing itself for descent, dangling from a “sky crane” for a soft touchdown after descending through the Martian atmosphere behind a protective heat shield.
Surviving a previously untested landing method involving a rocket-firing sky crane, NASA’s Curiosity rover (or, more formally, the Mars Science Laboratory) lands safely on Mars, at the base of a mountain near Gale Crater. The first images from the surface arrive within seconds of landing, confirming the safe delivery of NASA’s latest mobile Mars explorer. The landing is especially suspenseful due to the “seven minutes of terror” – the one-way time for a signal to reach Earth from Mars – and the fact that the entire reentry and landing procedure takes 14 minutes.
India launches its first deep space unmanned mission, sending the Mangalayaan probe toward the planet Mars. Using the proven Polar Satellite launcher, India’s entry into the field of interplanetary exploration runs up a bill equivalent to only $70,000,000. Mangalayaan – known to much of the rest of the world as MOM (Mars Orbiter Mission) – is designed to survey the Martian atmosphere and examine the planet’s surface from orbit. It will arrive at Mars ten months later.
The unmanned Mangalayaan space probe arrives, intact and functioning, in Mars orbit, making India the first country on Earth to successfully reach Mars on its first attempt. (A high failure rate among past Mars missions has plagued both the Russian and American space programs.) A 23-minute engine burn slows Mangalayaan down enough to be captured by Mars’ gravity, but leaves the vehicle with twice the fuel reserves expected for its projected six-month mission.
The European Space Agency’s unmanned Mars Trace Gas Orbiter, nicknamed ExoMars, lifts off via a Russian Proton rocket on a course for Mars. Carrying a small lander named Schiaparelli (named after the Italian astronomer who was instrumental in early mapping of Martian surface features via telescope), ExoMars is scheduled to arrive at the red planet in October 2016, deliver the Schiaparelli lander, and then enter orbit to search for traces and origins of methane in the Martian atmosphere, to determine if the presence of that gas – usually associated with biological activity on Earth – is geochemical in nature, or is derived from another source. Plans then call for ExoMars to join the fleet of artificial satellites relaying communications from current and future Mars-exploring rovers and landers to Earth through the 2020s.
The European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and accompanying Schiaparelli Entry Demonstration Lander arrive at the red planet, with the orbiter successfully completing a lengthy engine burn to put it into orbit around Mars; it is the second ESA orbiter to reach Mars, with Mars Express still operating in an elliptical polar orbit. The lander, however, is not so lucky in reaching its goal: its signal, monitored both by the Trace Gas Orbiter and by Mars Express, abruptly ends near the surface; later analysis, and a Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter sighting of debris on Mars, lead ESA engineers to conclude that the lander’s parachute was jettisoned too soon, leaving it to plummet to the ground. This is but the first wave of an expected ExoMars program, a joint venture between ESA and the Russian space program.