Exploring the Red Planet

In the mid 70s planet Mars, our neighbour, became a fundamental target for two American probes: the Viking twins. Both the orbiter module and the lander module  took the first detailed photographs of the surface of Mars, and generated a map of over 90% of the planet . The public image of Mars changed brusquely: the red planet was no longer luxuriant nor did it have a rich vegetation, rather, it was similar to the Earth’s tundra region, a desert area with no signs of life.
The estimated duration of the mission was 90 days starting from the time of landing, but both the lander and the orbiter continued to operate well after the estimated term. The mission was declared over on 21 May 1983, more than 6 and a half years after the date that was initially estimated by the module designers.
Subsequently,  exploration of Mars was substantially paused for over twenty years, a period of time that was interrupted only by the American Mars Global Surveyor mission, launched in 1996, that started sending the first images of the Red Planet at the end of ’97. Its high resolution images made it possible to also appreciate  the details of the planet, and for the first time it was hypothesized that water might be present on the planet.
From this time onwards the search for water, be it on the surface or trapped in the form of ice or in the subsoil in the form of permafrost, became the main aim of all the missions to the Red Planet.
In 2001, in fact, the American probe Mars Odyssey, managed to discover large quantities of hydrogen just below the surface, a clear clue of the presence of water.
However 2003 was the year of a peak in the missions to Mars, with the clear aim to “reveal” the water that apparently seems to have disappeared, but which probably is to be found  in the layers of the subsoil.  The European probe Mars Express was launched, and it transported the rover Beagle 2 and two NASA rovers, Spirit  and Opportunity.  2003 was a propitious time for exploration of the Red Planet as Mars and the Earth were in a particularly favourable orbit configuration, called the Great Opposition. In fact, at the end of August, due to the elliptical shape of their orbits, the two planets were at their closest approach point, at a distance of only 56 million km.
The orbiter entered the Mars’ orbit on 25 December 2003,  and on the same day the rover Beagle 2 was unhooked. After repeated attempts to communicate with it, on 6 February 2004 the rover was declared lost, probably it was destroyed on impact with the atmosphere.
The first image of the Orbiter showed Valles Marineris, with such a level of detail that had never been reached before. In the two following years, the images sent to the Earth provided the first direct proof of the presence of water on Mars.
Finally, on 4 August this year, the American mission Phoenix was launched, which will carry a new lander to the polar regions of the north of Mars, to inspect Martian soil in search of proof of the existence of past or present life. Phoenix shall study the climate and the geology of Mars to prepare for the mission of human exploration on the Red Planet.
Peter Smith, researcher at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, has said that Phoenix will enable us to explore the regions of the Northern hemisphere of Mars, where the environmental conditions are similar to those of the Earth.
In fact, thanks to a mechanical arm, Phoenix shall be able to probe the frozen layers of Mars and take samples to be analyzed. In a certain sense, Phoenix shall try to give a final answer to the fundamental queries of NASA’s long programme of exploration on Mars : was there life on Mars in the past?

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