Small step for Mars in quest for signs of life

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Small step for Mars in quest for signs of life

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Phoenix is the latest in a long list of NASA missions to Mars that started back in the 1960s. Along with the Moon, Mars embodied the race to space when the US and the Soviet Union vied to become the first to land on the Red Planet.

To date, there has been a a total of 38 missions to Mars, emanating from the US, Russia, Japan and Europe. Only three probes have successfully landed on the planet. The first exploitable pictures came from a 1971 NASA mission. But it was the Soviet probes Mars 4 and Mars 5, two years later, which revealed the presence of CO2 and ozone in Mars’ atmosphere.

In 1976, the US secured its own close-up shots of the face of Mars, its mountains, volcanoes and even some clouds. The following probe Viking 2 went further, showing the scars left by massive floods.

Twenty one years later, the search for life on Mars continued with NASA’s Pathfinder probe and its Sojourner vehicle, a four-wheel drive meant to explore and take photos of the planet’s surface.

A few months later, in September 1997, NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor reached the Red Planet after a 10-month journey. It succeeded in sending more than 240,000 pictures back to Earth. These included shots of a massive sand storm, confirming the presence of water clouds and ice on Mars.

A few years later, the European Space Agency made a breakthrough with its Mars Express probe, which beamed back pictures of what appears to be a sea of ice – a kind of Martian permafrost.

Today, NASA’s twin robots Opportunity and Spirit – which landed in early 2004 – continue to scour the Red Planet in search of signs of water.

Meanwhile, beneath the surface, the quest for signs of life also goes on with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. It has sent some impressive footage, which Mars fans will have to make do with as there are no plans of sending a man to the Red Planet anytime before the 2020’s.