Planetary exploration has long-since been tied to politics. During the 1960s especially, the space race fuelled missions for satellites, orbiters, and lunar landers. President Kennedy made it clear that The United States would make it to the moon by the end of the decade. But the technological conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States did not stop there. There was still plenty to explore in the frontier of space. As the United States looked beyond the moon to Mars as a new area of study, the Soviets headed closer to the sun and to the planet Venus.
The first Soviet attempt to fly a probe to Venus in 1961 failed to leave Earth orbit. The Soviets, not wanting to admit a failure, rebranded the mission as a heavy satellite launch. The following missions were more successful, but still not entirely routine. At this point, the missions to Venus had been designated as Venera (1-16), which means Venus in Russian. The first two probes, Venera 1 and 2 both lost telemetry on approach to Venus. In fact, Venera 1 flew too close to Venus after losing telemetry and was captured by Venus’s gravity. It is theorized that this probe remains in orbit to this day.
Image Created by Joey Serricchio
Venera 3-6 were similarly sized probes that were optimized for taking atmospheric measurements before crashing into the planet’s surface. While Venera 3 was unable to record any measurements, Venera 4 was able to measure the pressure of Venus’s atmosphere and became the first probe in the world to measure a non-earth atmosphere. Venera 5 and 6 had similar successes and each model was subsequently improved so that it could transmit data longer before disintegrating.
Other notable missions of the Venera program include Venera 7, the first probe to land successfully on the surface of Venus. Despite tipping over on landing, the probe was able to provide surface information before losing battery power.Venera 9 and 13 were the first probes to take black and white pictures and color pictures on the surface respectively. These missions showed the harsh surface conditions of Venus’s surface very clearly. There have been no missions to Venus since the final Venera mission, Venera 16 in 1983. This is mostly due to a lack of interest and funding for missions to Venus. Perhaps the organic materials found on Venus will spark a new interest in exploration and the Venera program will resume missions.
While the Soviets were the primary explorers of the second planet from our sun, the United States was the expert on Mars. The U.S. has sent numerous probes, orbiters, and landers to study Mars. These include Mariner 3, 4, and 6-9 which were probes performing flyby studies of Mars. In the 1970s, the Viking Program expanded on the Mariner Program by establishing an orbit with Mars and sending a lander to measure the surface. Thanks to Mars’s more hospitable surface, the probes were able to send information for longer periods of time than probes on Venus.
While interest in Venus subsided after 1983, interest in Mars has never stopped growing. Starting with Pathfinder in 1996, NASA sent a series of rovers to investigate the surface of Mars in much better detail than the landes could. Each generation of rover improved greatly on the previous one and, starting with Opportunity and Curiosity, high-definition pictures could be captured on the surface. Continuing to build this fleet of rovers, the Mars 2020 mission will land carrying the most advanced Mars rover, perseverance, and the first Mars gyrocopter, ingenuity.
NASA and SpaceX have recently accelerated interest in Mars exploration and both companies have talked about the possibility of sending a human mission to Mars. The discovery of frozen water on the surface has certainly contributed to this growing interest in the planet. Elon Musk, in fact, has expressed great interest in the colonization of the red planet. NASA’s plan is more long-term. They announced in a video their plans to set up a lunar base before going to Mars for colonization. The story of these two planets and these two countries shows the diligence and curiosity of mankind. Despite the competition, there have been great discoveries made and critical research done. There is no doubt that this spirit will continue well into the future, and will shape human space exploration for years to come.