50 Years Ago: Mariner 9 Launches to Orbit Mars

Following the success of the Mariner 6 and 7 the Fly-bys  of Mars in 1969, NASA’s next goal in exploring Mars was to place spacecraft in orbit around the Red Planet. The Mariner-Mars 1971 project1, run by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, planned to insert two spacecraft equipped with cameras and other instruments, Mariner 8 and 9, into elliptical orbits around Mars to study the planet for at least 90 days.

Left: Liftoff of Mariner 8. Middle: Launch of Mariner 9. Right: A model of the Mariner 8 and 9 spacecraft.

Day two complemented the spacecraft but had overlapping missions, one mapping up to 70% of the planet’s surface and the other focused on recording permanent changes in the planet’s atmosphere and its surface. Following the launch failure of Mariner 8, Mariner 9 has adopted the combined objectives of both spacecraft. Mariner 9 successfully launched on May 30, 1971 and entered Mars orbit on November 13, 1971.

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A model of the Mars 2 and 3 spacecraft, with the lander mounted atop the orbiter.

The first of two 2,200-pound Mars orbiters, the Mariner 8, lifted off from Cape Kennedy Air Force Station, Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, on May 8, 1971, at the top of the Atlas-Center rocket in Florida. The Centaur upper stage began to oscillate shortly after it ignited 265 seconds after launch and shut down 365 seconds into the flight.

 Mariner 8 tumbled into the Atlantic Ocean, the last American planetary spacecraft lost in a launch vehicle failure. Engineers blamed a failure on a faulty diode on the circuit board. The ground crew installed a modified circuit board at the center of Mariner 9, and the second spacecraft launched without incident on May 30, marking a 167-day journey to Mars. Mariner 9’s instruments, mounted on a steerable scan platform, consisted of:

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A model of the Mars 2 and 3 landers as they would appear on the surface of Mars.
  • Wide-angle and narrow-angle television cameras for imaging the planet down to a resolution of 320 feet;
  • An infrared interferometer spectrometer to provide information on the structure of the Martian atmosphere;
  • An infrared radiometer to provide information on the brightness temperatures of the Martian soil;
  • An ultraviolet spectrometer to determine surface and atmospheric composition.

On November 13,1071 the Mariner 9 entered an elliptical orbit around Mars, the first spacecraft to orbit another planet and began its mission of discovery of the Red Planet. It returned 7,392 images of the planet, mapping 75% of its surface, and its design lasted a lifetime until October 27, 1972.

Mariner 9 did not travel to Mars alone. The Soviet Union launched three spacecraft planned for landing and on the Red Planet and placed the MOP-M mini-rover on the surface. First, an orbit was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on May 10 but failed to leave Earth orbit, and the Soviets called it kosmos 419 to hide its true identity.

Mars 2 and 3, combined orbiter and lander spacecraft, launched on May 19 and 28, respectively, successfully left Earth orbit, and began their interplanetary journeys. Mars 2 reached its destination on Nov. 27, 1971, and released its lander which entered the Martian atmosphere at too steep an angle and crashed on the surface, the first spacecraft to reach the surface of Mars.

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A model of the Mars 2 and 3 PrOP-M rover

 The orbiter has entered an elliptical orbit around Mars. Mars 3 arrived on December 2, 1971 and released its lander that made the first soft-landing on Mars at Ptolamaeus Crater. however, The lander, stops transmitting after only 20 seconds and does not return any usable data and cannot deploy its Prop-M rover. The Mars 3 orbiter entered a partially usable high-level elliptical orbit around Mars that occurred due to the shortness of the planned orbital insertion burn.

PHOTO CREDIT:NASA