First Dual-Spacecraft Flight, 50 Years Ago

Fifty years ago today — August 11, 1962 — the USSR launched Vostok 3 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. The very next day, they launched Vostok 4, marking the first time two crewed space vehicles were in orbit at the same time.

Vostok 3 carried cosmonaut Andrian G. Nikolayev, and Vostok 4 carried cosmonaut Pavel R. Popovich. The closest approach between their two spacecraft was about 5 km. Both spacecraft de-orbited on August 15th.

The best online images of the Vostok 3 & 4 mission seem to be held closely by the web site owners, but: playing off the “Vostok” theme, and since we’ve been captivated by the Curiosity rover’s recent landing on Mars, the image below shows the track of one of Curiosity’s predecessor’s near Vostok Crater.


(Mars Rover Opportunity’s track near Vostok crater. NASA image.)

A 360-degree view extending from the above image can be seen in this panoramic view.

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Curiosity Has Landed

A few hours ago the Mars Science Laboratory, also known as the Curiosity rover, landed successfully on the red planet.


(One of Curiosity’s first pictures from Mars. According to the official NASA description, this image was “taken through a ‘fisheye’ wide-angle lens on the left ‘eye’ of a stereo pair of Hazard-Avoidance cameras on the left-rear side of the rover. The image is one-half of full resolution. The clear dust cover that protected the camera during landing has been sprung open. Part of the spring that released the dust cover can be seen at the bottom right, near the rover’s wheel.”)

Here’s the full story from Spaceflight Now. Congratulations to the spacecraft’s designers, builders, launch team, and operators on the pinpoint approach and the success of the “sky crane” that deposited the rover safely on the surface. Well done!

The rover landed in Gale Crater, which pleases me immensely since the main character of my novel is named Gale (nicknamed “Stormie”). I may need to add a suitable reference in the text.

As I wrote in a recent related post, I look forward to Curiosity’s trek and discoveries.

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Anticipating a Mars Landing, Remembering A Mars Lander

As we get ready for the landing of the Curiosity rover, a bit of space history: 5 years ago today — August 4, 2007 — a Delta II rocket launched from Cape Canaveral carrying the Phoenix Mars Lander.


(Phoenix Mars Lander. NASA conceptual image.)

The Phoenix was designed to analyze soil samples dug from below the Martian surface. It landed in Mars’ north polar region on 25 May 2008:

Fourteen minutes before touchdown, and about 7 minutes before atmospheric entry (defined as reaching an altitude of 125 km) the cruise stage was jettisoned. The spacecraft entered the atmosphere and the heat shield initially slowed the craft. After about 3 minutes the parachute deployed, followed by ejection of the heat shield 15 seconds later, deployment of landing legs 10 seconds after that, and radar activation 50 seconds later. At 1 km altitude the parachute was released and a powered descent and soft-landing was achieved using a pulsed propulsion system with 8 thrusters, which turned off when footpad sensors detected touchdown.

In terms of the Martian year, the spacecraft landed near the summer solstice, at a high enough latitude that the sun would be above the horizon for several more months. This provided ample power through the summer months, but ensured that when winter came the craft would not be able to replenish its batteries. As a result, the mission came to an end when the lander sent its last transmission on 2 November 2008. And according to this mission page, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter images taken in 2010 showed that winter snow and ice damaged the lander’s solar panels.

Phoenix confirmed the presence of water ice on Mars, and also determined that the Martian soil is moderately alkaline.

And as we post this, the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity, is on course for the red planet. We look forward to the landing, and some new discoveries!

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A Martian 4th of July Sojourn

Fifteen years ago today — July 4, 1997 — Mars Pathfinder, which launched in December 1996, landed on Mars.


(“Twin Peaks” imaged by Mars Pathfinder. NASA image.)

Mars Pathfinder consisted of a lander, named the Carl Sagan Memorial Station after touchdown, and the Sojourner rover.

From landing until the final data transmission on September 27, 1997, Mars Pathfinder returned 2.3 billion bits of information, including more than 16,500 images from the lander and 550 images from the rover, as well as more than 15 chemical analyses of rocks and soil and extensive data on winds and other weather factors. Findings from the investigations carried out by scientific instruments on both the lander and the rover suggest that Mars was at one time in its past warm and wet, with water existing in its liquid state and a thicker atmosphere.

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Mars Pathfinder

Fifteen years ago today — December 4, 1996 — a Delta-II rocket launched from Cape Canaveral Air Station carrying the Mars Pathfinder lander and rover.


(Martian sunset (false color view). NASA image.)

Mars Pathfinder landed on Mars on July 4, 1997, and deployed the Sojourner rover (named for Sojourner Truth). After it landed, the Pathfinder’s name was changed to the Carl Sagan Memorial Station.

The mission was a great success, with the rover lasting twelve times longer than its design life and the lander lasting three times as long. The last Mars Pathfinder data transmission was sent on September 27, 1997.

Lessons learned from the Mars Pathfinder mission went into building the follow-on Spirit and Odyssey rovers, as well as the much larger and more ambitious Curiosity rover which launched November 26, 2011, on the Mars Science Laboratory mission.

May Curiosity meet with even greater success than its predecessors.

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First Successful Landing on Mars

Forty years ago today — December 2, 1971 — the Soviet Mars-3 lander made the first successful soft landing on the Red Planet.


(Mars-3 lander model at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Russia. Image from the National Space Science Data Center.)

Mars-3 had been launched on May 28th (see this space history blog entry), hot on the heels of Mars-2. When Mars-3 landed, Mars-2 had already become the first manmade object to reach the Martian surface.

Mars-3’s landing, in contrast to Mars-2’s, went smoothly. Once the petals opened and it began transmitting, however,

After 20 seconds, at 13:52:25, transmission stopped for unknown reasons and no further signals were received at Earth from the martian surface. It is not known whether the fault originated with the lander or the communications relay on the orbiter. A partial panoramic image returned showed no detail and a very low illumination of 50 lux. The cause of the failure may have been related to the extremely powerful martian dust storm taking place at the time which may have induced a coronal discharge, damaging the communications system. The dust storm would also explain the poor image lighting.

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Surveying Mars

Fifteen years ago today — November 7, 1996 — the Mars Global Surveyor launched from Cape Canaveral atop a Delta-II rocket.


(Mars Global Surveyor. NASA image.)

The first U.S. mission to arrive successfully at Mars in 20 years — since the Viking missions — Mars Global Surveyor entered Martian orbit in September 1997. Its planned aerobraking routine had to be radically altered when one of its solar panels did not lock into position; as a result, it did not enter its final “mapping orbit” until February 1999.

Even though its primary mission was only intended to last one Martian year — 687 Earth days — MGS actually examined the red planet for seven years. Its array of instruments “collected data on the surface morphology, topography, composition, gravity, atmospheric dynamics, and magnetic field” in order to “investigate the surface processes, geology, distribution of material, internal properties, evolution of the magnetic field, and the weather and climate of Mars.” NASA lost contact with the spacecraft in November 2006, just five days shy of its ten-year launch anniversary.

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Viking-2 Lands on Mars, in a Genre-Significant Place

Thirty-five years ago today — September 3, 1976 — Viking-2 landed on Mars.


(Viking-2’s first color image of Utopia Planitia. NASA image.)

Viking-2 landed “about 200 km west of the crater Mie in Utopia Planitia,” which, for those familiar with the Star Trek universe, is where the Federation shipyards are — the birthplace of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

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In Martian Orbit

Thirty-five years ago today — June 19, 1976 — Viking-1 arrived at Mars.


(Viking-1 orbiter. NASA image.)

The Viking-1 orbiter spent a month imaging the red planet while mission controllers picked the best spot for its lander. The orbiter released the lander on July 20th.

The orbiter shut down its mission operations during the solar conjunction (when the Earth was on the opposite side of the Sun from Mars) from November 5 until December 14, 1976. The orbiter continued to function until August 17, 1980.

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Surveyor-1 and Mariner-9: to the Moon and Mars

Forty-five years ago today — May 30, 1966 — Surveyor-1 launched from Cape Canaveral on an Atlas-Centaur rocket.


(Surveyor-1. NASA image.)

Surveyor-1 was the first U.S. mission to make a soft landing on the Moon. The Surveyor program consisted of seven robotic lunar missions, designed to prove out capabilities and technologies for the Apollo lunar landings.

(As an aside: in my yet-unpubished novel, Walking on the Sea of Clouds, a team of colonists make their way south on an “ice run” and the main character takes a moment to reflect that only a slight detour would take them by the Surveyor landing site.)

In our other space history item for the day, 5 years later — on May 30, 1971 — the Mariner-9 mission to Mars launched, also on an Atlas-Centaur rocket from Cape Canaveral.

Taking advantage of favorable timing and a “direct ascent trajectory,” Mariner-9 sped past the Soviet Union’s Mars-2 and Mars-3 missions to arrive at Mars after only 167 days. On November 14, 1971, Mariner-9 become the first spacecraft in orbit around another planet.

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