FARNBOROUGH, England -- So far, the scorecard for missions to Mars reads attempts 40, successes 14.
Not so good.
Well over 60 percent of Earth missions to Mars have failed, ever since the pioneering efforts of the former Soviet Union in the 1960s and including Britain's high-profile Beagle 2 space probe.
As NASA's latest mission to Mars heads closer to the Red Planet, the head of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, Doug McCuistion, acknowledged Tuesday that many things could still go wrong before its scheduled Aug. 6 landing date.
The one thing that worries him most is if the spacecraft's heat shield will detach as planned when the U.S. Mars Science Laboratory mission sets down a large, mobile laboratory on Mars – the rover Curiosity.
"If you look at the scorecard, Earth is doing less than 50 percent; less than 50 percent of Earth's missions to Mars have been successful," McCuistion, a former U.S. fighter pilot, said at the Farnborough Airshow south of London.
In the seven minutes before its planned touchdown, the U.S. spacecraft has a number of tasks it has to complete for Curiosity to make a safe landing. First it must get rid of the heat shield and avoid a subsequent collision with it. Then it has to slow its descent to the Red Planet with the aid of a massive parachute as well as use rockets mounted around the rim of an upper stage. In the final seconds, the upper stage of the spacecraft acts as a sky crane, lowering the upright rover on a tether to the surface.
In spite of the challenges, McCuistion remains positive that the $2.5 billion mission will be a success and praises the unprecedented international cooperation between NASA and companies like German electronics company Siemens AG.
After all, NASA, the world's biggest space agency, enjoyed success with its twin Mars Exploration Rovers in the mid-2000s.
"I can't really give you a hard number .... but I think we are in a medium-to-low risk environment," McCuistion said.
After spending eight months travelling to Mars, Curiosity will spend 23 months analyzing dozens of samples drilled from rocks or scooped from the ground as it explores Mars with greater range than any previous rover.
Mars missions all share the same ultimate goal: Seeing whether Earth's nearest planetary neighbor can sustain life. President Barack Obama has set a goal of the 2030s for a manned mission to Mars, but with budgetary constraints, NASA faces a tough task defending its current $18 billion annual budget.
NASA is hoping a scorecard of 15 successful trips to Mars will help in that task.
The Father Of Radio
Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi received U.S. patent number No. 586,193 for his wireless telegraph on July 13, 1897. Credited as the inventor of the radio, Marconi would go on to develop this into a device that would change communication forever.
Get Ready For Your Close-Up, Mars
NASA's space probe Mariner 4 sent back the very first close-up photo of Mars on July 14, 1965. Orbiting 10,500 miles from the Red Planet, the photos revealed that there were craters on Mars.
On July 10, 1908 Dutch physicist Kamerlingh Onnes (1853-1926) made a chemical breakthrough when he liquified helium by bringing it to a temperature of 4.2 K (about -269 ºC). At the time, this was the coldest temperature reached on Earth. Today, liquid helium is used as a coolant for the superconducting magnets found in MRI machines.
Hughes' Historic Flight
Famous aviator and business magnate Howard Hughes set a new record on July 10, 1938, when he flew around the world in only 91 hours. Departing from and arriving in New York City, Hughes' Lockheed Super Electra flew him right into the annals of aviation history.
The discovery of Nobelium, element 102, was announced by physicists at the Nobel Institute in Sweden on July 9, 1957. Named after Alfred Nobel, the synthesized element still remains largely mysterious to scientists.
The 'Genesis Planet' was discovered on July 10, 2003. The planet, named PSR B1620-26 b (but also nicknamed 'Methuselah') is 12,400 light-years away from Earth, located in the constellation Scorpius. Believed to be about 12.7 billion years old, it is the oldest known extrasolar planet.
On July 11, 1811, famous Italian physicist Amedeo Avogadro published seminal essays on his molecular theory of gases. Although his ideas weren't accepted by the scientific community at the time, he has been acknowledged as an important figure in physics and chemistry. You may know him as the namesake of Avogadro's number, learned in elementary chemistry classes as 6.022 x 10^23, the number of particles in 1 mole of a substance.
Skylab Ignites A Commotion
The first U.S. space station reentered Earth's atmosphere with a bang on July 11, 1979. Skylab, which had been in orbit since 1973, created an international media event when it burned (unmanned) through the atmosphere over Western Australia. Several newspapers even offered prizes to people who found falling debris.
On July 9, 1595, the German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) published his<em> Mysterium cosmographicum</em>, or Mystery of the Cosmos. In it, Kepler described what he thought was an invisible underlying geometric structure that explained the relationships of the planets. Although his calculations were very accurate, his theory was later proven wrong.
Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) demonstrated his new invention, dynamite, on July 14, 1867 at a quarry in Surrey, England. Nobel used nitroglycerin to produce an explosive that was contained and manageable. However, concerned with his posthumous reputation as the father of dangerous explosives, Nobel arranged his famous prize to be awarded to advancements in esteemed subject areas each year.