Mars or Bust: The Ongoing Exploration of the Red Planet


Julian Levy

With the recent launch of two new Mars-bound spacecraft, as well as the discovery of water in the soil of Mars, the red planet is shaping up as a hotspot of exploration.

This month marked the launch of two exploratory spacecraft to Mars in the continuing effort to better understand the planet. NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission have both set off on a 10-month trek to collect atmospheric data in the hopes of unlocking the mysteries of Mars’s wet past.

“Our journey to Mars begins now,” said India Space Research Organisation Chairman K. Radhakrishnan at the ISRO spaceport. “MOM is a huge step taking India beyond Earth’s influence for the first time.” The Nov. 5 launch of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) marked the nation’s first foray to the red planet. The spacecraft is expected to arrive in Mars’ orbit in 10 months, where, according to ISRO’s mission statement, it will study the planet’s morphology, mineralogy, and atmosphere.

It’s long been assumed that Mars was a desiccated planet, but according to September reports on the findings of NASA’s Curiosity rover, frozen water was discovered in the fine-grained Martian soil.

“If you took about a cubic foot of the dirt and heated it up, you’d get a couple of pints of water out of that—a couple of water bottles’ worth that you would take to the gym,” said Laurie Leshin, dean of science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and lead author on the reports.

We now know that water exists on Mars, frozen in the soil, but scientists are still scratching their heads as to what happened to the liquid supply. On Nov. 18, NASA launched its own spacecraft to collect data on Mars’ atmosphere for the ongoing effort to better understand the planet’s watery past. MAVEN, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN Mission, will orbit Mars elliptically, taking advantage of multiple vantage points to analyze the planet’s thin atmosphere at varying altitudes. This will allow MAVEN to test the hypothesis that Mars’s liquid water supply evaporated away into space long ago due to solar wind—a torrent of charged particles emitted from the sun.

With two spacecraft heading for potential orbits around Mars, the possibility for collaboration between NASA and ISRO seems promising.

“At the point where we [MAVEN and MOM] are both in orbit collecting data we do plan to collaborate and work together with the data jointly,” said Bruce Jakosky, principle MAVEN investigator at the University of Colorado at Boulder, in an interview with

While Earth’s space agencies collect various data on Mars, the big question remains of when the data can be put to use in a manned exploratory mission. It appears that the continuation of unmanned missions like MAVEN and MOM are necessary to ensure the success and safety of future Mars-bound astronauts.

“If humans are there and are coming into contact with fine-grained dust, we have to think about how we live with that hazard. To me it’s a good connection between the science we do and the future human exploration of Mars,” said Leshin.

“I do think it’s inevitable that we’ll send people there [to Mars] and so let’s do its as smartly as we can,” Leshin continued. “Let’s get as smart as we can before we go.”