Three launches to Mars were planned for 1996. A total of five landers and two orbiters were to reach the Red Planet between July and September 1997. But Mars exploration has never been easy. Before this year, the only attempts to reach Mars since 1976 were the Soviet Phobos missions, launched in 1988, and the US Mars Observer, launched in 1992. Mars Observer and Phobos 1 never made it. Phobos 2 reached Mars in 1989, collected a miniscule amount of data, then failed before starting an ambitious mission to explore the martian moon, Phobos.
Mars '96 Tragedy. Back in the times of the USSR, it started out as Mars '92. After the USSR broke up in 1991, the mission was re-christened as Mars '94. It missed the 1994 launch window because of lack of funds. Finally, Mars '96 (four landers and an orbiter) was launched on November 16, 1996. It was a spectacular night launch from Kazakhstan that occurred around 1:49 p.m. Arizona (Mountain Standard-- MST) Time. Mars '96 was launched aboard a Proton rocket, one of the work-horses of the old Soviet space fleet (see photo). On Sunday morning, November 17, I saw on CNN that the fourth stage had not fired. This was the rocket motor that would boost Mars '96 out of Earth's orbit and send it on to the Red Planet. Instead, around 6:30 p.m. Arizona (MST) time, I watched CNN as the US Space Command declared that Mars '96 had crashed into the Pacific Ocean somewhere between Easter Island and the west coast of Chile. It is a terrible loss to space scientists around the world and to the Russian people.
Mars Global Surveyor Glitch. Mars Global Surveyor (MGS), lifted off from Florida's Cape Canaveral on November 7, 1996, and is on its way to a September 1997 arrival at Mars... but with a solar panel that is causing mission planners some concern because it is not fully deployed. Greg Mehall's update on MGS and ASU's Thermal Emission Spectrometer (TES) in this issue of TES News provides some perspective on the solar panel problem.
Mars Pathfinder Waits. As of this writing, Mars Pathfinder and its microrover, Sojourner, are being prepared for launch. The window opens December 2nd at 12:09 a.m. Arizona (MST) time.