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The Mars mystique

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Mars is certainly a tough destination to reach. The grimness in the mission control room in 1999 is a reminder of that. Human error, technical glitches, and the challenge of orchestrating a rendezvous between two objects after traveling more than 300 million miles, at speeds of up to 50,000 m.p.h., make landing a craft on Mars or orbiting it very difficult. This is to say nothing of dust storms, wayward winds, and frigid temperatures once a spacecraft lands.

The result is that, in the 52 years since humans have been trying to send spacecraft to Mars, only 36 percent of the missions have achieved their primary objectives. That includes 40 launches by a variety of entities – Russia, the US, Europe, and Japan.

Russia, starting back when it was the USSR, was the first to try to send a probe to Mars, in 1960, but it remains 1 for 19 in attempts that were fully successful. The Russians are the only ones to have successfully landed probes on Venus, so their poor track record for Mars remains something of an enigma.

The US has fared better with its missions to Mars. It enjoys a 73 percent success rate over the course of 19 launches, with craft typically far outlasting their initial "warranty." NASA's rover Opportunity, for instance, arrived at Meridiani Planum, just south of the Martian equator, Jan. 25, 2004, and it's still exploring its patch of the red planet.

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