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50 years ago - when the Mariner 9 spacecraft reached Mars

50 years ago – when the Mariner 9 spacecraft reached Mars

Illustration of a marine space probe near Mars (Imago / agefotostock)

For five and a half months, Mariner 9 has been on its way to the neighboring planet Mars. When the space probe the size of a small car reached its destination on November 13, 1971, the disappointment was great at first. Because a huge dust storm broke out on Mars, covering almost the entire planet and hardly anything appears on its surface.

A few weeks later, the dust settled – and the first clear images of Mariner 9 generated a lot of excitement, explains Ernst Huber, a planetary geologist at the German Aerospace Center in Berlin Adlershof:

“The revolutionary thing is that you’ve seen evidence of water on Mars and a more diverse and life-friendly planet than you’d previously expected based on Mariner 4 and then 6 and 7 images.”

Chest seat for Mars exploration

Mariner 9’s previous probes only took a few snapshots while flying over Mars, which mainly showed areas with many craters. Mars – like our moon on Earth – seems to be a barren and dead world.

Mariner 4 has captured the crater of Mars

Mars crater, captured by Mariner 4 (NASA)

But the new probe orbited the planet like a satellite for the first time — and had a box seat for Mars exploration, as it was called in a NASA movie at the time:

“The space probe determines the density of the atmosphere from its orbit and determines whether the thin Martian clouds are composed of carbon dioxide or water vapor. The infrared instrument measures the temperature on Mars, which ranges between minus 100 and 20 degrees Celsius. Two cameras cover the entire planet and transmit More than 7000 photos down to Earth.

Why does Mars seem habitable now?

Mariner 9 has traveled 1,500 kilometers from Mars in its long orbit. Ernst Huber says:

“In the images, Mariner 9 basically saw valley shapes created by the erosion of a liquid medium. So I knew then: At least in its early days, Mars must have been a more water-tolerant planet. Water was on the surface. That being the case, it’s Of course it is more habitable, i.e. potentially more habitable.”

At present, liquid water cannot exist on the surface of Mars. It’s too cold for that and the pressure of the thin Martian atmosphere is very low. But more than a billion years ago, Mars looked completely different, as the traces on its surface showed. Suddenly, the idea of ​​life on Mars was no longer pure science fiction, but rather a major research topic, as said shortly after the arrival of the rover, Gerald Soffin, a biologist at NASA:

Several images from Mariner 9 — like this one from Nirgal-Vallis — have shown Mars researchers that there may have been liquid water on Mars earlier.

Several images from Mariner 9 – like this one from Nirgal-Vallis – have shown Mars researchers that there may have been liquid water on Mars earlier (NASA)

“One of the greatest scientific opportunities of our time is the search for life on Mars. It will change the way we understand life and how it arose.”

Microbes instead of green men

But the initial euphoria after Mariner 9’s discoveries soon vanished. It is still not clear if there is life on Mars or if there is life. At best, it’s about the microbes, not the proverbial little green men. But before the end of this decade, Ernst Huber and his colleagues around the world hope that space probes will not only orbit or land on Mars, but will also bring soil samples back to Earth for the first time.

The surface of Mars shows traces of possible past water flows in many places

An idea for the production of oxygen on the red planet
There is currently a certain spirit of optimism in space travel: NASA and the European Space Agency will soon test their Orion spacecraft, which is supposed to take people to the moon — and companies like SpaceX are already dreaming of traveling to Mars.

“This is going to be the next very big revolution in Mars research, because only with samples that you know where they come from, and that you can examine with the latest methods in the best laboratories on Earth, can you get that precision after life research in a way that wasn’t possible before “.

The European Space Agency's Mercury BepiColombo probe will use Venus twice in orbital maneuvers (animation)

BepiColombo, Mercury and Natural Curb
The BepiColombo space probe has been on its way to Mercury for three years. Now it is only about 200 kilometers from the farthest planet – it has reached its destination, but it is far from there.

If life can be found on Mars, the dream that experts have cherished since the Mariner 9 images will finally come true. The space probe itself has not been operating for a long time, but it is still moving around the red planet. Only in a few years will it enter the Martian atmosphere and burn up.