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How a first historical mission on Mars Surface has ended with a crash

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Forty-seven years ago today, the first man-made spacecraft reached the surface of Mars. Only things did not go exactly as planned.

The interplanetary introduction was organized by the Soviet Union which, a few months before, had carried out what was called the M-71 project. The initiative was to send a satellite and two unmanned spacecraft to Mars: the satellite orbits around the red planet and collects data so that the other two can land on its surface safely for the first time in its history.

In 1971, pressure mounted on the Soviet space program after an American took his first steps on the moon in 1969 and two earlier rocket launches by the Soviets in the same year ended in a disaster, worsening the fundamental difficulty of the task at hand.

"Sending a spacecraft to a distant planet and bringing it into an unknown atmosphere and landing on a poorly known surface was a business of another magnitude," said Lev Muhkin, then deputy director of the Space Science Center. Is West. to a 1999 history of Mars exploration written by the Soviet designer of spacecraft VG Perminov. "But with every new failure, a new experience was gained, and with each successive attempt, the goal was closer."

Soviet Union. Mars III, the space vehicle sent to Mars in the seventies. (Photo by Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

When the launch took place in May 1971, Perminov stated that he and his team were "nervously" watching. This time, the rockets managed to penetrate the atmosphere, but the first problems appeared when one of the engine blocks could not ignite. on time.

"An analysis showed that the operator had made a mistake," wrote Perminov. "He sent an eight-digit code command to the spacecraft control system to activate Block D for the second time in the reverse order. It was a human factor, not the technology, that was responsible for the mistake. "

The misstep would have consequences millions of kilometers later.

The broken engine was in part designed to send the satellite into its reconnaissance mission on Mars, which means the landing gear would be forced to dispense with crucial information on their perilous raids.

The mission continued with the overflight of the two spacecraft, christened March 2 and March 3, "Opera[ing] perfectly. (March 1 was part of a failed Soviet mission almost 10 years ago and was lost somewhere during the multimillion-kilometer journey between the planets.)

Then, in June, when the spacecraft was in its infancy, Perminov received a panicked call from one of his scientists.

"Come quickly," said his troubled voice … "Communication with Mars failed last night, gather the team and fly to Yevpatorija [a control center in Crimea] . Immediately & # 39; "

The news to which his team arrived has proved sinister: the defects of March 2 and March 3 were exactly the same. "The original transmitters, which operate in the decimetre band, failed first," Perminov later wrote. "Then, duplicate transmitters have been activated. At first, they worked properly but then failed. A command has been given to start transmitters operating in the centimeter band. The telemetry data indicates that the centimeter band transmitters have been activated and started to operate, but the signals have not reached the Earth. "

After two days of non-stop work, the team was able to reconnect with the spacecraft, although it remains perplexed as to the exact cause of the failure. "The flight of the spacecraft March 2 and 3 has continued," wrote Perminov.

Perminov said that in November 1971, a few days before the spacecraft approached Mars, there was other bad news.

"In recent weeks, an exceptionally strong dust storm has covered the entire surface of the planet. Astronomers have indicated that a dust storm of such magnitude has never been recorded on the Martian surface, "he wrote.

There was nothing to do about it, so the mission continued. On November 27, the Mars 2 Lander made its planned descent. Unfortunately, the on-board computer thought that the LG was on the wrong path, attempted to fix it and accidentally sent it on a much more abrupt trajectory than it should have been. # 39; be.

Rather than crossing the atmosphere and blowing up a large parachute for a soft landing, the March 2 rover screamed in the Martian sky and crashed to the surface of the planet before his parachute rolled over. Had the slightest chance to deploy.

Greetings from the Earth.

Fortunately for the Soviets, the March 3 lander managed a soft landing.

"Everyone was eagerly awaiting the information transmitted from the lander to the radio system embedded in the spacecraft," Perminov writes.

After waiting for the spacecraft in orbit to be well positioned to relay the emissions from the lander, an image finally appeared. "There was a gray background without details," wrote Perminov. The dust storm, apparently, had interfered with the transmission of the images.

But the LG was able to return data – about 20 seconds before it also became black.

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