Science fiction has a plethora of ideas about what happened in the past and what to expect from the future. Unfortunately, not all of those ideas are exactly plausible in reality. In Suspension of Disbelief, we’ll take a look at the best ideas from sci-fi movies, books, comics and videogames to see where (and if) they intersect with the real world.
At this point, movies about traveling to and/or from Mars don’t have to add too much fiction to their science in order to make their plots work. For example, everything in The Martian is relatively sound scientifically and could exist within our lifetimes (2035 is a bit generous, though). Mars is the next great frontier for human exploration and a real possibility for the space programs of countries around the world and private space companies looking to get in on the ground floor of a burgeoning market.
But we have already been exploring Mars for more than 45 years. Though the major objective of the Space Race was landing a person on the Moon, the USSR and USA also battled for other firsts in space, including the first to explore Mars. Nineteen spacecraft have been sent through the Solar System and down to the surface of red planet from the United States, Russia, and Europe, and each one was a massive undertaking. Just to demonstrate how difficult it is to get a piece of equipment to the surface of Mars in working order, note that only eight of those nineteen attempts has been successful. The others weren’t able to leave Earth’s orbit, crashed onto the surface of Mars, or weren’t functional after they did land. Using explosives to throw a dart at a bullseye 33 million miles away and then have it take pictures when it gets there isn’t an easy feat.
Click through the gallery to see the history of humanity’s success and failures on the red planet.
Based in New York City, Cameron Wade is a freelance writer interested in movies, videogames, comic books and more. You can find more of his thoughts and ramblings at protogeektheblog.wordpress.com.
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Mars 2 and 3
Both superpowers launched Mars probes in May 1971, intending theirs to be the first to orbit the red planet. Despite launching 11 days before the United States's Mariner 9, the Soviet Union's twin probes Mars 2 and 3 failed to beat Mariner into orbit, arriving two weeks after the American probe. But the Soviet Mars probes had another goal that America hadn't even planned for with Mariner: land on the planet. The Mars landers were equipped with two cameras that provided a 360-degree view, devices to study the planet's atmosphere, pressure, and temperature, and a mechanical scoop to test the composition of the surface and look for signs of life. It also had a 10-pound rover which connected to the lander via a wire. Neither of the Mars landers' instruments were ever used though. During Mars 2's descent?, the lander's parachute failed to open, possibly due to its descent being too steep, and it crashed to the surface. Though it failed to arrive in working order, the Mars 2 lander does hold the distinction of being the first human-made object to land on the Martian surface. A few days later, Mars 3 became the first human-made object to land successfully on the planet, but 14 seconds after it began transmitting its first photo back to Earth, the lander suddenly shut down, possibly due to the intense dust storm that happened to be raging when the probes arrived. A portion of the black-and-white photograph was received on Earth, but due to the storm nothing can be seen.
Image via NASA
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After another failed Soviet attempt to land a working device on Mars, it was the United States that finally accomplished the feat in 1976 with Viking 1. Launched in 1975, Viking 1 entered Mars orbit on June 19, 1976 and its lander was deployed on July 20. It was the United States's first attempt to land on the planet and it proved enormously successful. The lander detached from the Viking orbiter and plummeted to the surface at 800 feet per second, using parachutes and rockets to slow its descent for the first soft landing on Mars. Immediately after touchdown the lander activated, deploying its communications antenna and meteorology sensors, and sending an image of the Martian surface back to NASA, the first clear image ever produced of the red planet from its surface. The Viking lander spent 2245 sols, or 2306 Earth days, studying Mars, including collecting and analyzing Martian soil with a robotic arm. The Viking 1 lander may have found the first signs of organic life on Mars (now known to have existed) though some call its result a false positive. It was also used to successfully prove a component of the Theory of General Relativity regarding gravity's affect on the flow of time, nearly 65 years after Einstein first posited it. On November 11, 1982, an update to the lander's code that was meant to improve its degrading battery's performance accidentally overwrote part of its programming that controlled the lander's antenna, cutting off communications. Viking 1's record of 2245 sols of continuous operation wasn't broken until 2010.
Image via NASA
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Pathfinder and Sojourner
Following the success of the Viking missions and the slowing of the Space Race, the United States didn't attempt another Mars mission until 1996. After a seven-month journey, Pathfinder landed on Mars on July 4, 1997 and deployed a 25-pound, wireless rover called Sojourner. The two robotic spacecraft were part of NASA's Discovery Program which focused on producing high frequency, low cost missions. Pathfinder and Sojourner were also used as a test of new technologies including air balloons as cushions for landings and automated systems that would help rovers avoid obstacles. While on the red planet, Pathfinder performed experiments on the Martian soil, measured the planet's weather, and took pictures of the landscape and Sojourner's exploration of it. Sojourner's maximum speed was two feet per minute, and though it never went more than 40 feet away from Pathfinder, it still traveled a total of 328 feet during its lifetime. During its travels, Sojourner analyzed the elemental composition of the soil and took close-up pictures of dirt and rocks. Though its initial mission was only scheduled to last seven days, Sojourner remained operational for 85 days, only shutting down when Pathfinder, its link to Earth, did so on September 27, 1997. Together, Pathfinder and Sojourner took 16,500 pictures of Mars and made millions of measurements and experiments.
Image via NASA
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When discussing space exploration, it's often too easy to only focus on the attempts and achievements made by the United States and Russia, but they're not the only two countries to leave their mark on Mars. Named for the HMS Beagle, the ship that took Charles Darwin to the Galapagos Islands, the European Space Agency and the UK's Open University hoped that Beagle 2 would make similarly groundbreaking discoveries about life on Mars. Launched on June 2, 2003, Beagle 2 landed on Mars on December 25, 2003. Its mission was scheduled to last 6 months with the possibility of extending it up to two years. Though relatively simple and small in design, Beagle 2 had an arm that could scoop dirt onto its sensors in order to analyze its composition, study the atmosphere, and, most importantly, search for signs of life, past and present. But after Beagle 2 descended to the Martian surface from orbit, ground control never received the automatic signal that should have been sent when it landed. After several attempts to establish contact with Beagle 2, it was officially declared lost on February 6, 2004. The ESA and British government launched an inquiry into what may have caused the mission's failure. Four options were put forth: it burnt up while entering the atmosphere; its airbags or parachute failed to deploy and it crashed; its heat shield failed to detach during descent and became tangled in its parachute; or, upon landing, the lander got tangled in its parachute and couldn't open. In 2015, one of NASA's satellites passed over Beagle 2's landing spot and took pictures of the lander. The photos revealed that the craft made it to the surface in one peace, but failed to properly deploy all five of its panels, causing the communications antenna to become blocked. Even though it failed to complete its mission, the ESA still considered Beagle 2 a success as it demonstrated that the space program's launch and landing engineering had worked properly.
Image via NASA
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NASA launched another Mars exploration vehicle just eight days after the European Space Agency's Beagle 2 and seven years after Pathfinder and Sojourner, though the Spirit rover was considerably more complex and versatile than either (Spirit is in the top left, along with Sojourner, bottom left, and their eventual successor, Curiosity, top right). After arriving on Mars on January 4, 2004, Spirit was planned to operate for just 90 sols, or 92 days. Equipped with four cameras, a microscopic imager, magnets for collecting particles, a drill to look inside of rocks, and a number of atomic and elemental detection devices, Spirit's mission was to analyze the geological makeup of its landing site and surrounding areas, determine what geological process contributed to that makeup (e.g. wind erosion and volcanic eruptions), and search for evidence of water on Mars, past or present, in order to determine if life could have ever existed there. Spirit, like its twin Opportunity, proved remarkably durable, continuing its mission for 1,944 days, over 20 times its planned length. On May 1, 2009, Spirit became stuck in soil to soft to drive through, especially with only four of its six wheels still functioning. Spirit continued performing assessments and experiments in its location for another 10 months until NASA finally lost communication with it. Spirit fell just one month short of breaking the record set by Viking 1 for longest operational mission on Mars. During its mission, Spirit took 128,224 pictures while on Mars and found direct evidence that Mars once had water.
Image via NASA
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Opportunity launched a month after Spirit on July 7, 2003. Opportunity was identical to its twin in every way except for its landing site. Opportunity landed on the opposite side of Mars from Spirit, three weeks after Spirit, and began its own 90-day mission (pictured is its attempt at a selfie, featuring its chassis, its shadow outlining its panoramic camera, and the Martian landscape). It explored Endurance Crater where it found definitive evidence of water having been present on the Martian surface. Upon leaving the crater, Opportunity found a meteorite, the first time one was found on another planet. On May 20, 2010, Opportunity became the longest operating Mars vehicle, breaking Viking 1's record, and on July 28, 2014, it became the farthest traveling rover ever, breaking a 40-year record held by Russia's Lunkhod 2 Moon rover. Opportunity is still active today, nearly doubling Viking's original milestone and having ran a whole marathon, over 26.5 miles and counting.
Image via NASA
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In 2011, NASA began the next stage in its exploration of Mars. Thanks to Spirit, Opportunity, a number of satellites, and the rest of the Mars missions, the existence of water on Mars, both past and present, had been proven. Now NASA wanted to begin connecting the dots between water and the potential for Martian life. The Curiosity rover was designed for a two-year mission that would look for the effects of biology on the Martian landscape, determine the history and development of the atmosphere, and track the cycle of water and carbon dioxide on the planet, as well as serve as a trial run for NASA's 2020 rover and eventual human missions. Standing nearly 10-feet tall and weighing almost 2,000 pounds, Curiosity is double the height and five times the weight of Opportunity and Spirit. It's equipped with an infrared laser, a microscope, an X-ray emitter, two internal chemical labs, a shovel attached to a robotic arm, a brush, a drill, and 17 different cameras. It arrived on Mars on August 6, 2012 in Gale Crater, considered by NASA to be a prime location for studying the history of Martian geology and water flow. For the one-year anniversary of its arrival on Mars, Curiosity played "Happy Birthday" to itself, the first song to be played on another planet. After completing a full Martian year (687 Earth days), it was announced that Curiosity had found evidence that Mars once had conditions favorable to microbial life. Curiosity is still operational and mobile, having covered almost 10 miles, going just 100 feet per hour, over the course of 1780 days.
Image via NASA