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A year in the life of Mars

Charles Black, Founder and CEO of Sen
Dec 26, 2013, 8:00 UTC

Sen—With three orbiters and two rovers it was another busy year exploring Mars. Two new orbiters will join them in September 2014 following their launch this year. 

In November the world saw India launch its first mission to Mars. The unmanned spacecraft dubbed Mangalyaan began its journey to the Red Planet on November 5 and is due to arrive in orbit in September next year. The orbiter will study the planet's geology, climate, atmosphere and look for signs of methane that might indicate life.

India's Mars Orbiter Mission, which has a cost in region of $40m, was criticised by some observers who argued the country should not be launching space probes whilst suffering from so much poverty and being in receipt of international aid. Head of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Mr K Radhakrishnan, counter argued that the benefits of the country's space programme, which had primarily been devoted to building communication and remote sensing satellites, surpassed the cash expenditure in terms of both tangible and intangible benefits.

NASA also took advantage of the favourable November launch window to send its MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) spacecraft on its way. Lifted into orbit by an Atlas V rocket the probe will enter orbit around Mars in September 2014 where it will study the upper atmosphere. Scientists hope MAVEN will provide answers as to what happened to Mars's atmosphere which was much thicker in the distant past.

Mangalyaan and MAVEN will join three other probes already in orbit -- NASA's Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the European Space Agency's Mars Express.

Christmas Day this year marked ten years since Mars Express arrived in orbit. The orbiter has sent back amazing images which have shown the planet was shaped by a lot of water in the ancient past. As well as studying the planet Mars Express has also been gathering data on the Martian moons Deimos and Phobos.

This December ESA released Phobos 360, a 360 degree image of Phobos based on pictures taken by Mars Express's High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) at various times during its ten years in Martian orbit. On December 29 Mars Express will have its closest encounter ever with Phobos, flying within 45 km of the moon's surface.

The flyby on 29 December will be so close and fast that Mars Express will not be able to take any images, but instead it will yield the most accurate details yet of the moon’s gravitational field and, in turn, provide new details of its internal structure.

A 360 degree view of Mars' moon Phobos. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

On the surface two rovers continued to study the planet. NASA's Curiosity rover continued to send back stunning images and valuable data. The main news from Curiosity came in March when NASA announced that the rover had found evidence that Mars once had environmental conditions which may have been capable of supporting microbial life. 

Whilst much news flow came from Curiosity, NASA's smaller Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity continued gathering more evidence about Mars' wet past. Of particular interest was a rock, named Esperance, which had once been covered in water. Steve Squyres the mission's Principal Investigator observed "Water that moved through fractures during this rock's history would have provided more favourable conditions for biology than any other wet environment recorded in rocks Opportunity has seen."

January 2014 will mark Opportunity's tenth anniversary since landing on the Red Planet. The sturdy rover was designed for an initial three month mission and yet is still going nearly ten years on. Though showing some signs of aging the rover made its journey this year to an place called Solander Point where it will stay during the Martian winter.

NASA is planning to launch another rover in 2020. Whilst Curiosity had found evidence that Mars once had conditions suitable for microbial life the 2020 rover should take the next step and seek evidence of such life, according to a report on the scientific objectives submitted to the space agency. The robotic lander should have the tools to look for signs of past life in rocks and soil. Mars' past is still setting the agenda for our exploration and future missions.