You Can’t Fail Unless You Try: The Soviet Venus & Mars Missions of 1962

As anyone with even a passing knowledge of spaceflight can tell you, space is an unforgiving place. While the majority of space missions launched today are successful, these successes came at the cost of a lot of failures especially during the early years of the Space Age. It sometimes took years of failures and learning hard lessons from them in order to develop the technology, engineering practices and management techniques needed to ensure that complex spacecraft could be built and accomplish their missions. This was especially true of early planetary missions which had to fly many millions of miles for several months before they would reach their target for a brief encounter with only one chance for everything to work as intended.

The 1VA spacecraft Venera 1, which was launched on February 12, 1961, was the only one of the original batch of Soviet missions to Mars and Venus to survive launch but it malfunctioned only days after its departure. (RKK Energia)

After the failure of the pair of Soviet 1VA missions to Venus in February 1961 (which included Venera 1) and the pair of 1M Mars probes launched four months earlier (see “Venera 1: The First Venus Mission Attempt” and “The First Mars Mission Attempt”), Chief Designer Sergei Korolev, as well as the scientists and engineers at the Soviet Union’s famed OKB-1 design bureau (the ancestor of today’s Russian aerospace giant, RKK Energia), set about preparing for the next set of planetary probes to be launched starting in just a year and a half. Chance and celestial mechanics meant that the next launch windows to Venus and Mars would be back to back—August/September 1962 to Venus and October/November 1962 to Mars—thus increasing the workload on Korolev and his team who were already busy with Vostok missions, E-6 lunar lander development (see “50 Years Ago Today: The Launch of Luna 5”), launch vehicle advances, and a host of military projects, to name but a few. And with NASA planning to launch its first Mariner spacecraft to Venus during this same window, there was additional pressure to beat the Americans and score more propaganda points for the Soviet Union.


The 2MV Spacecraft

In order to meet the demanding schedule as well as incorporate the lessons learned from the development and flight problems of his first quartet of Soviet planetary probes, Korolev envisioned a common multipurpose interplanetary spacecraft design to be used for both the Mars and Venus missions, designated 2MV. While sharing a common configuration and most key systems, slight variations would exist in this basic design to better tailor the spacecraft for their specific targets and missions. With a launch mass of around a metric ton, these spacecraft would be far larger and more capable than the American Mariner spacecraft also under development at that time.

Chief Designer Sergei Korolev headed the OKB-1 design bureau which built many of the Soviet Union’s early spacecraft and launch vehicles including the 2MV spacecraft bound for Venus and Mars. (RKK Energia)

On July 30, 1961, the 2MV series was officially approved for development by OKB-1. The 2MV spacecraft were about 3.6 meters tall and consisted of two sections. The first, known as the orbital compartment, was a cylinder with a diameter of 1.1 meters that was about as tall. As was the usual Soviet practice, the interior of this compartment was pressurized with dry nitrogen to 1.1 bars (where one bar is approximately equal to Earth’s atmospheric surface pressure) in order to simulate an Earth-like laboratory environment for the internal equipment. This approach increased the mass of the spacecraft but greatly simplified the thermal design and testing of the spacecraft’s systems. The equipment inside the orbital compartment included communications gear, power supplies and their associated batteries, automated control systems, data recorders, and some experiment electronics. Because of the problems encountered with the astro-orientation system during the brief flight of Venera 1, various Sun and star sensors were now mounted inside the orbital compartment and looked through a window to acquire and track their targets in order to provide better thermal control for this vital system.

Mounted on top of the orbital compartment was a course correction system that employed a KDU-414 engine designed and built at OKB-2, led by Aleksei Isayev. This same engine had been included in the previous quartet of Soviet planetary probes but had not had a chance to be used. The pressure-fed KDU-414 burned UMDH (unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine) and nitric acid to generate two kilonewtons of thrust. Normally this engine would be employed twice during a typical mission: once a few days after leaving the Earth to correct the 2MV trajectory for the inevitable launch errors, and a second time a few days before encountering its target to refine its approach trajectory to meet the mission’s objectives. Also located here was the attitude control system, which used pressurized nitrogen stored in a pair of tanks mounted on the orbital compartment.

Russian diagram of the 2MV-4 flyby spacecraft targeted for Mars. Major components include 1) orbital compartment, 2) planetary compartment, 3) KDU-414 course correction engine and propellant, 4) solar panel, 5) radiators, 6) high gain antenna, 7 & 8) low gain antennas, 9 & 9A) meter-wave band antennas, 10) omni-directional antenna, 11) photo-television system portholes, 12) science instrument sensors, 18) attitude control jets and 19) attitude control gas tanks. Click on image to enlarge. (RKK Energia)

Mounted either side of the orbital compartment were a pair of solar panels with a total span of about 4 meters that provided power for the spacecraft. Attached to the ends of the solar panels were hemispherical radiators designed to provide thermal control for the spacecraft’s interior systems. Water pumped through heat exchangers in the interior would circulated out through black- or white-painted sections of the radiators to heat or cool the spacecraft systems as needed to maintain the interior’s temperature between 20°C and 30°C. A complicated louver system controlled by electric motors was employed on the earlier Soviet planetary probes but it proved to be unreliable and insufficient. Engineers hoped that this new system would be more capable and robust.

A two-meter in diameter high-gain directional antenna mounted on the anti-sun side of the orbital compartment was used for long distance communications. Various low gain antennae were also mounted on the exterior of the orbital compartment to provide an omni-directional communications capability, using transmitters operating in three different frequency bands. Instrument sensors to measure magnetic fields, various types of radiation, and micrometeoroids that were mounted on the exterior rounded out the orbital compartment.

The second pressurized section of the 2MV spacecraft was called the planetary compartment. Mounted on the bottom of the orbital compartment, the planetary compartment held instruments to be used to study the target planet. The first type of planetary compartment contained cameras as well as other optical instruments that looked through a porthole in the compartment’s base to study the target planet during a close flyby. There were two variants of 2MV spacecraft that carried such a payload: the 2MV-2 designed for a Venus flyby and the 2MV-4 for Mars. At the heart of the 2MV planetary compartment was a 32-kilogram camera system. The system was designed to take a total of 112 images on 70 mm film through 35 mm wide angle and 750 mm telephoto lenses.

The photo-television system on the 2MV flyby spacecraft was one of the most advanced space cameras of its time.

Film-based imaging systems like this had better performance than the early vidicon-based imaging systems of the day like that employed by the American Ranger lunar probe (see “50 Years Ago Today: The Launch of Ranger 7”) and could more efficiently store larger amounts of data than any analog or digital data storage system of the time. After all of the images were acquired, the film would be automatically developed and then scanned for transmission back to Earth as the Soviets had done with Luna 3 when it photographed the Moon’s previously unexplored far side in October 1959. The developed images could be scanned at 1440, 720, or 96 lines, and the film could be rewound and rescanned to retransmit images if desired. In many ways, this system was functionally equivalent to the film-based imaging system that was eventually employed on NASA’s Lunar Orbiter spacecraft which would systematically map the Moon in 1966 and 1967 for many of the same technical reasons (see “Lunar Orbiter 1: America’s First Lunar Satellite”).

The approximately one-meter tall planetary compartment also contained its own high-power impulse C-band transmitter to send images back to the Earth after the encounter with the target planet was completed. The planetary compartment’s transmitter fed directly through to the high gain antenna to transmit pictures at a rate of 90 pixels per second. It would take over six hours to transmit a full-resolution, 1440-line image. The lower-resolution preview images could be transmitted much more quickly through the planetary compartment’s dedicated transmitter or more slowly through a less capable transmitter in the orbital compartment as a backup. At full resolution, the system was capable of returning images with a pixel footprint as small as 650 meters from a range of 10,000 kilometers.

Also included in the planetary compartment was an ultraviolet spectrograph designed to make measurements of the target planet’s atmospheric composition. It made periodic exposures of spectra on the same film used by the camera. The Mars-bound 2MV-4 variant also carried an infrared spectro-reflexometer that was coaligned with the camera and ultraviolet spectrograph. It was designed to make measurements in the 3 to 4 micron wavelength range of what were then called “Sinton bands” named after American astronomer William M. Sinton of the Lowell Observatory. He had found a trio of absorption features near 3.5 microns in the late 1950s that were thought by some to be potential evidence of plant life on Mars (see “A Cautionary Tale of Extraterrestrial Chlorophyll”). Similar instruments were to have been carried by the pair of ill-fated 1M Mars probes launched in October 1960 but were removed to save weight. The 2MV-2 also carried infrared instrumentation to observe Venus and remotely measure its temperature.


The 2MV Landers

The second type of planetary compartment carried by the 2MV spacecraft had a much more ambitious mission: the 2MV-1 and 2MV-3 planetary compartments were designed to separate from the orbital compartment shortly before their planetary encounter and land on Venus and Mars, respectively, years ahead of what NASA was hoping to achieve with their proposed Mariner B spacecraft then under study. Both landers were spheroids about 90 centimeters in diameter with their center of gravity offset from their center of figure so that they would naturally orient themselves blunt side down during entry without the need of an active attitude control system. Starting in the summer of 1960, lander models were lofted to altitudes as high as 50 kilometers on R-11A rockets (the sounding rocket version of the infamous SS-1 Scud missile) to test the lander designs at high altitude.

Both lander variants carried instruments to measure the temperature, pressure, density and composition of the atmosphere during descent and on the surface. Also carried was an instrument to measure gamma rays so that the quantities of radioactive elements like potassium-40, thorium, and uranium present in the surface could be measured, allowing geologists to roughly characterize the types of rocks present. The landers carried no cameras since their data volume requirements exceeded the limited capacity of the direct radio communications link from the lander to the Earth.

A Russian diagram of the 2MV-1 Venus lander. Major components include 1) orbital compartment, 2) planetary compartment (lander), 3) KDU-414 course correction engine and propellant, 4) solar panel, 5) radiators, 6) high gain antenna, 7 & 8) low gain antennas, 9 & 10) meter-wave band antennas, 11) magnetometer and omni-directional antenna, 12) low gain antennas, 14) science instruments and 19) attitude control gas tanks. Click on image to enlarge. (RKK Energia)

Since the 2MV landers were intended for targets with very different conditions (which were only very poorly understood at the time), there were notable differences between the two lander variants. The 2MV-1 Venus lander was expected to survive an entry velocity of about 11.7 kilometers per second, compared to the 2MV-3 Mars lander’s typical 6.1 kilometers per second entry velocity. Influenced by Soviet astronomers like Gavril Tikov who believed in a more Earth-like (albeit hotter) conditions on Venus, engineers at OKB-1 expected our sister planet to have a dense atmosphere of nitrogen and carbon dioxide with a surface pressure of 1.5 to 5 bars and temperatures up to 77°C. While there were those in the world astronomical community who thought the atmosphere of Venus could be much denser with surface temperatures as high as 324°C, it was still anyone’s guess at this point in time. Based on the best information then available, Soviet engineers expected Mars to have a thin atmosphere composed primarily of nitrogen with a surface pressure of around 100 to 300 millibars with temperatures typically well below freezing. As a result, the Venus-bound 2MV-1 was more heavily built with a more robust heat shield and a smaller parachute while the 305-kilogram Mars-bound 2MV-3 sported a lighter heat shield but a much larger and heavier parachute system to ensure a safe landing.

The nature of the surface of Venus was almost completely unknown at this time because of the unbroken layer of clouds that shroud the planet from our view near visible wavelengths. As a result, the 2MV-1 lander was designed to not only survive a touchdown on dry land but also float in any Venusian ocean that might exist with a motion detector providing information on any wave action. While scientists at this time did not believe that any oceans existed on Mars, the possible presence of smaller bodies of water could not be excluded and the 2MV-3 Martian lander could likewise float in the unlikely event of a water landing. The 2MV-3 was also equipped with a simple experiment to search for signs of Martian life that was widely believed to exist at that time. In order to minimize the chances of contamination, the Mars and Venus landers were sterilized. The orbital compartments that carried the landers were expected to burn up on entry.

The launch vehicle for the 2MV spacecraft was the four-stage 8K78 soon to be known as “Molniya” after the communication satellite series that started regularly using this rocket in 1964. Designed and built at OKB-1, all four stages of this rocket used kerosene and liquid oxygen (LOX) as propellants. The first two stages of the 8K78 consisted of a core and four tapered boosters based on the Soviet’s 8K74 ICBM also known as the R-7A. Fitted with the Blok I third stage, this rocket would serve as the basis of the Soyuz launch vehicle whose distant descendants are still in use today after half a century of service (see “The Avoidable Tragedy of Soyuz 1”). In order to provide the final boost to propel the 2MV from low Earth parking orbit and towards Venus or Mars, a Blok L escape stage topped the launch vehicle.

Diagram of the early version of the 8K78 Molniya launch vehicle used to loft the 1M and 1VA missions to Mars and Venus, respectively. Click on image to enlarge. (RKK Energia)

The 8K78 had performed poorly during its first three flights. The two 1M Mars probes launched in October 1960 never made it to orbit because of failures involving the Blok I third stage. The first 1VA Venus probe made it into its parking orbit but was stranded by a Blok L escape stage malfunction. Only the fourth flight successfully sent Venera 1 on it way to Venus February 12, 1961. For the 2MV flights, engineers made a number of improvements to enhance the performance and reliability of the 8K78 and lengthened the payload shroud by 2.3 meters to accommodate the larger 2MV payload. Despite its problems, the 8K78 was still the most powerful rocket in the world at the time and had about four times the lifting capability of the American Atlas-Agena, which had been experiencing its own problems at the time.


The 2MV Venus Launches

For the Venus launch window, which extended from about mid-August to mid-September of 1962, OKB-1 prepared a pair of 2MV-1 landers and a single 2MV-2 flyby spacecraft (see “Trajectory Analysis of the 1962 Soviet Venus Missions”). But before the first new Soviet Venera spacecraft was ready, NASA beat them to the punch with the launch of Mariner 1 on July 22, 1962, with a scheduled Venus flyby date of December 8. Unfortunately, the loss of the radio guidance link to the ascending Atlas 145D, coupled with a previously undetected software glitch, sent Mariner’s Atlas-Agena B launch vehicle off course, forcing the range safety officer to destroy the ascending rocket only 293 seconds into its flight.

The launch of the Atlas-Agena B carrying NASA’s Mariner 1 mission on July 22, 1962. (NASA)

With a brief reprieve, the Soviets continued their preparations. At 5:18:45 AM Moscow Time (02:18:45 GMT) on August 25, 1962, 8K78 serial number T103-12 lifted off from Site 1/5 in what would become known as the Baikonur Cosmodrome, successfully placing its Blok L escape stage and the 1,097 kilogram 2MV-1 No. 1 into a temporary 174 by 248-kilometer parking orbit with an inclination of 64.8°. Just before ignition of the escape stage 60 minutes and 50 seconds after liftoff, four solid rocket motors were suppose to fire to settle the liquid propellants to the bottom of the Blok L tanks in preparation for engine ignition. Unfortunately, only three of the motors fired, sending the escape stage and its payload into an uncontrolled tumble. The escape stage’s S1.5400A1 engine only fired for 45 out of a planned 240 seconds, stranding the first 2MV-1 in Earth orbit. Unofficially designated “Sputnik 19” in the West, Soviet authorities never announced its launch as required by international agreements, and its orbit decayed just three days later.

An 8K78 rocket waiting on the pad for launch with a Venus-bound 2MV payload in September 1962.

Before Korolev and his team could make their second launch attempt, the Americans successfully launched Mariner 2 towards Venus on August 27, 1962. Because of the limited performance of the Atlas-Agena B compared to the Atlas-Centaur that was hoped to be available in time, Mariner 2 was basically a stripped down version of the Ranger Block I engineering test craft (see “The Prototype That Conquered the Solar System”) with a total mass of 204 kilograms, of which just 9 kilograms consisted of scientific instruments. Unlike the 2MV-2, Mariner 2 did not carry a camera. Intended to flyby Venus at a distance of about 29,000 kilometers on December 14, this was a much more modest spacecraft than the 2MV-series, but it was the first to get underway to Venus.

Diagram showing the major components of NASA’s Mariner 2 spacecraft. Click on image to enlarge. (JPL/NASA)

Five days later, at 5:12:30 AM Moscow Time (02:12:30 GMT) on September 1, 1962, 8K78 serial number T103-13 lifted off from Site 1/5 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome successfully placing its Blok L escape stage and the 2MV-1 No. 2 into a temporary 185 by 246-kilometer parking orbit with an inclination of 64.8°. But once again, failure would strike just as the escape stage was to fire 61 minutes and 30 seconds into the flight. A fuel valve failed to open and the main engine never received its fire command, stranding the Venus probe in a low Earth orbit that decayed five days later. Again Soviet authorities did not announce the launch and the wayward rocket was designated “Sputnik 20” by the West.

With the loss of the two landers and the end of the Venus launch window fast approaching, Soviet engineers and technicians hurriedly prepared the sole remaining spacecraft, the 2MV-2 No. 1 flyby craft, on 8K78 serial number T103-14. Launched at 3:59:13 AM Moscow Time (00:59:13 GMT) on September 12, 1962, the rocket encountered a major problem 531 seconds after launch when a vernier chamber of the Blok I third stage’s 8D715K engine exploded just after attaining orbit because of a faulty LOX valve. Despite the mishap, the Blok L escape stage and its payload made it into a 163 by 195-kilometer parking orbit inclined 64.8° to the equator. Unfortunately, the escape stage’s engine fired for only a fraction of a second due to a failure in its LOX turbopump, stranding “Sputnik 21” in an orbit that decayed two days later.

Diagram showing the encounter of NASA’s Mariner 2 with Venus on December 14, 1962. Click on image to enlarge. (NASA)

With the loss of all three Soviet and the first American Venus probes, only NASA’s Mariner 2 survived launch to make its way to Venus. After a voyage of 109 days, Mariner 2 flew 34,827 kilometers above the surface of Venus on December 14, 1962 and successfully carried out its observations. And after an unbroken string of failed Ranger lunar missions over the course of 1962, it was a welcome success for NASA (see “NASA’s First Moon Lander”). Mariner 2 did not detect any breaks in the Venusian clouds and the surface temperature was estimated to be at least 425°C with no measurable difference between the day and night surface temperatures. There was no detectable water vapor above the Venusian clouds and the best guess, based on all the Mariner and ground-based observations, was that the surface pressure was somewhere around 20 bars.

If the Soviet 2MV-2 No. 1 spacecraft had survived launch and successfully returned images of Venus during its flyby in December 1962, they likely would have been similar to this nearly featureless visible light image of Venus acquired by NASA’s Mercury-bound Messenger mission almost 44 years later on June 5, 2007. (NASA/APL/Carnegie Institute of Washington)

Of course, today we now know that the surface conditions on Venus are even more extreme than scientists believed after the Mariner 2 mission, with a surface pressure of 92 bars and a surface temperature of about 480°C. Had the Soviet 2MV-1 landers actually survived to reach Venus, they would have certainly returned vital in situ measurements of the Venusian atmosphere during their parachute descent but they would have been crushed at an altitude of 35 kilometers or more and never reach the surface intact. The 2MV-2 flyby craft could have returned additional information that would have supplemented the data from the less capable Mariner 2, but given the unbroken cloud layer that covers Venus, any images returned by the 2MV-2 would have shown a virtually featureless orb.


The 2MV Mars launches

As the Soviets were launching the 2MV probes to Venus, the sister craft to Mars were experiencing problems during their final push towards launch. For this launch window, a pair of 2MV-4 flyby craft and a single 2MV-3 lander were being prepared for missions that would be twice as long as their Venus-bound sister craft owing to their slower trajectories to a more distant target. The launch energy requirements to reach Mars in 1962 were much higher than they were for Venus and as a result the 2MV probes to Mars had to be correspondingly lighter with far tighter constraints on mass growth in order for the 8K78 to send them on their way (see “Trajectory Analysis of the Soviet 1962 Mars Missions”). But as happens all too frequently in the development of new spacecraft, their estimated launch masses kept growing forcing changes to the mission plans and spacecraft.

The original launch window that extended from mid-October to mid-November of 1962 had to be shortened to just the last week of October and the first week of November when the launch energy requirements were near minimum, allowing the 8K78 launch vehicle to lift the maximum payload possible towards Mars. Engineers also made efforts to lighten the 2MV Mars spacecraft as much as possible. One of the victims of this effort was the life detection experiment that was to be carried by the sole 2MV-3 lander, which was removed after it failed to perform adequately in tests on the barren steppe outside of the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

As preparations for the launch of the Mars probes continued, Cold War tensions between the Soviet Union and United States were quickly escalating as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded on the other side of the globe because of the Soviet deployment of R-12 and R-14 IRBMs (known by their NATO codenames of SS-4 “Sandal” and SS-5 “Skean” in the West, respectively) on Cuban soil. On the morning of October 21, 1962, 8K78 serial number T103-15 carrying 2MV-4 No. 3 was rolled out to Site 1/5 for final checkout and preparation for launch. The next day President John F. Kennedy addressed the American people to inform them of the presence of Soviet IRBMs on Cuban soil. On October 23 President Kennedy signed an executive order setting up a naval blockade of Cuba to prevent any more Soviet missiles from reaching Cuba. As tensions between the superpowers continued to escalate to a dangerous new high, the first new Soviet Mars probe lifted off at 8:55:04 PM Moscow Time (17:55:04 GMT) on October 24 and was successfully placed into a 202-by-260-kilometer parking orbit with an inclination of 65.1°.

After coasting for about 90 minutes, the Blok L escape stage ignited but its S1.500A1 engine exploded after only 16 seconds of operation because of a turbopump failure. The escape stage and doomed 2MV-4 No. 3 spacecraft broke up into two dozen pieces that were detected by the American early warning radar network. While it would have been quickly determined that this was not a Soviet missile attack, there were probably more than a few frayed nerves on the American side in the moments it took to determine that this was a non-military launch failure. As before, the Soviets never announced the launch and the now disintegrated spacecraft, designated “Sputnik 22” in the West, fell from orbit five days later.

At the height of the Cuban Missile Crises, R-7A ICBMs (whose technology was used in the 8K78 Molniya launch vehicle) were erected on the same launch pads that the 2MV Mars probes were to use. Click on image to enlarge. (RKK Energia)

The next day, 8K78 serial number T103-16 carrying 2MV-4 No. 4 was rolled out to Site 1/5 for launching no later than October 29, 1962. This time around the events in Cuba would directly interfere with Korolev’s plans. On October 27, Soviet military personnel at the cosmodrome were put on alert. All work on the preparation of the second and third Mars probes was suspended while workers were shifted to preparing combat-ready R-7A ICBMs for launch. According to standing orders instituted under such circumstances, the launch of the 8K78 already on the pad was cancelled and it was to be removed to make room for a R-7A. After many frantic hours of phone calls between the cosmodrome and Moscow and a final resolution of the crisis by American and Soviet leaders on October 28 (which included the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba in exchange for the removal of American Jupiter IRBMs in Italy and Turkey), launch preparations were free to resume.

After a three-day delay due to the crisis, the 8K78 carrying the second Soviet Mars probe lifted off at 7:14:16 PM Moscow Time (16:14:16  GMT) on November 1, 1962, and was successfully placed into a 174-by-243-kilometer parking orbit with an inclination of 64.9°. After completing a single orbit, the Blok L escape stage ignited and successfully placed the 893.5-kilogram 2MV-4 No. 4 on a 230-day trajectory towards Mars—by far the longest interplanetary mission ever attempted up to this point in the Space Age. This time Soviet authorities announced the launch, calling the new spacecraft Mars 1.

View of the Sun-facing side of Mars 1.

At 7:35:15 Moscow Time (15:35:15 GMT) on November 4, 1962, the last Mars probe, 2MV-3 No. 1, lifted off on 8K78 serial number T103-17. If the launch proved to be successful, this lander would reach the Red Planet two days after Mars 1 after a transit of 229 days. Unfortunately, a malfunction in the pressurization system of the Blok A core caused cavitation in the propellant lines, resulting in strong vibrations starting 260 seconds into the ascent. The Blok L escape stage and its Mars lander successfully made it into a 170-kilometer parking orbit inclined 64.8° to the equator, but when time came to ignite the escape stage, nothing happened. Apparently the abnormally strong vibrations during powered ascent had shaken the escape stage’s ignition fuse out of its holder, stranding what the West designated “Sputnik 24” in its parking orbit. Various components of the escape stage and wayward Mars lander decayed from orbit between December 27, 1962, and January 19, 1963.


The Mars 1 Mission

With no American Mars launches attempted during this window, Mars 1 was flying solo to the Red Planet with the hope that the Soviet Union would be the first to Mars. At very least, Mars 1 was already the first probe to be successfully launched towards Mars. But after the first communication session with the receding 2MV-4 spacecraft, it was beginning to look as though that might be the only achievement of Mars 1. Initial tracking from the Soviet ground control station at Yevpatoira in Crimea indicated that Mars 1 would pass within 500,000 kilometers of Mars and, as expected, a course correction would be required to place the spacecraft on a path that would reduce the flyby distance into the desired range of 1,000 to 10,000 kilometers. However, telemetry also indicated that one of the two nitrogen gas tanks used for attitude control and to pressurize the course correction propulsion system was leaking and would be depleted in a matter of just a few days. Apparently contamination in a valve prevented it from shutting completely off, allowing the nitrogen gas to escape slowly and sending Mars 1 into an uncontrolled tumble.

While ground controllers rushed to diagnose and correct the problem, astronomers at the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory swung into action. In order to determine the trajectory of the receding Mars 1, they used their 2.6-meter reflecting telescope to photograph Mars 1 and its Blok L escape stage against the stars starting at 4:50 AM Moscow time on November 2 at a range of 193,000 kilometers. The Mars probe appeared as a fast-moving 14th magnitude star and over 350 photographs were taken following its position across the sky. This information combined with radio tracking helped to estimate that miss distance would be about 261,000 kilometers.

A pair of telescopic double exposures (taken 30 seconds apart) from the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory showing Mars 1 and its spent Blok L escape stage the day after launch (indicated by the forked lines). Click on image to enlarge. (Crimean Astrophysical Observatory)

Luckily, within a week ground controllers were able to regain control of Mars 1 using gas from the remaining nitrogen tank and, in order to conserve what little was left, they cancelled any course correction burns and set the probe into a slow flat spin to provide gyroscopic stabilization that would keep its solar panels facing towards the Sun allowing the batteries to be kept charged. While it would not be possible to use the directional high gain antenna for communications in this mode, the omnidirectional antenna could still be used and data from the particle and field experiments could be gathered to provide new and useful data on the interplanetary environment. Almost as important was the engineering data returned to help engineers evaluate the 2MV design and the experience of tracking and controlling an interplanetary spacecraft.

Diagram showing the trajectory of Mars 1 (C) in relation to the orbits of the Earth (A) and Mars (B). The relative positions on launch day (1) and the encounter with Mars on June 19, 1963 are indicated.

As Mars 1 continued on its journey gathering data with its instruments, communications sessions began to be held every five days instead of the two days during the earliest part of the mission. By March 1, 1963, Mars 1 was 79 million kilometers from the Earth but the strength of its radio signals was unexpectedly declining, indicating a new problem. On March 21 telemetry from the 37th communication session indicated that the attitude control system had totally broken down, although all other systems seemed to be operating properly. Unfortunately, nothing was heard from Mars 1 again despite repeated attempts over the next few months. Based on the latest tracking information, Mars 1 flew silently past Mars on June 19, 1963 at an estimated distance of 193,000 kilometers. Despite its problems, Mars 1 had operated for 142 days and was a record 106 million kilometers from the Earth when it was last heard, surpassing the previous deep space communication distance record just set by the American Mariner 2 on January 3 when it was 86.7 million kilometers from Earth 129 days after its launch.

Ironically, had Mars 1 been on a shorter duration Venus mission, it would have survived long enough to make a distant flyby with a month of life to spare. But if Mars 1 had survived and attitude control was not lost, its camera system alone would have been capable of returning up to two orders of magnitude more imaging data than NASA’s Mariner 4 mission, which reached Mars two years later (see “Mariner 4 to Mars”). One can only speculate on what Mars 1 and, had it survived launch and made it to its scheduled June 17 encounter date, 2MV-4 No. 3 might have discovered—the Tharsis volcanoes, Valles Marineris, chaotic terrain, and vast outflow valleys—and how that would have affected the next decade of Mars exploration. Observations by the infrared spectro-reflexometer would have also failed to find any evidence of the Sinton bands over a year and a half before it was discovered that these absorption features were the result of deuterated water (i.e. water with one of its pair of normal hydrogen atoms replaced with its heavier isotope, deuterium) in Earth’s atmosphere and were not evidence of life on Mars. These successes, coming on the heels of the successful dual flight of Vostok 5 and 6 (the latter of which carried the first female cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova) from June 14 to 19, would have been an even larger propaganda win for the Soviet Union… if it had worked.

Had Mars 1 or its sister craft, 2MV-4 No. 3, successfully completed their missions, they could have returned dozens of images with quality comparable to this photometric version of a Mariner 6 near encounter image of Terra Meridiani acquired six years later. (JPL/NASA)

Unfortunately, the 2MV-3 No. 1 Mars lander was doomed from the start. The Martian atmosphere in reality is just a few percent as dense as had been assumed by Soviet engineers (as well as American engineers at the time) and the spherical lander could not produce enough drag for a safe landing. The 2MV-3 lander was doomed to crash on the Martian surface without sending back any data on its scheduled June 21 encounter date. The scientific data from the cruise to Mars, the delivery of some commemorative pennants, and the claim of having been the first to impact Mars would have been the sole results. Unfortunately, the first hints that the atmosphere of Mars was actually much thinner than it was then believed would not come until Soviet astronomer Vassili I. Moroz at the Sternberg State Astronomical Institute in Moscow published an analysis of his newest infrared spectral results in September 1963 (see “Zond 2: Old Mysteries Solved & New Questions Raised”).

But even before Mars 1 had fallen silent, Chief Designer Sergei Korolev and his team at OKB-1 were already hard at work on the next generation of planetary probes, the improved 3MV series, to be launched in February/March 1964 towards Venus and that November towards Mars. Incorporating the hard lessons learned from a total of ten planetary mission attempts, it was hoped that the new series of planetary spacecraft and their 8K78 launch vehicle would have better luck.


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Related Reading

“The First Mars Mission Attempts”, Drew Ex Machina, October 10, 2015 [Post]

“Venera 1: The First Venus Mission Attempt”, Drew Ex Machina, February 12, 2016 [Post]

“Trajectory Analysis of the 1962 Soviet Venus Missions”, Drew Ex Machina, June 4, 2014 [Post]

“Trajectory Analysis of the Soviet 1962 Mars Missions”, Drew Ex Machina, May 2, 2014 [Post]


General References

Boris Chertok, Rockets and People Volume III: Hot Days of the Cold War (ed. Asif Siddiqi), SP-2009-4110, NASA History Division, 2009

Brian Harvey, Russian Planetary Exploration: History, Development, Legacy and Prospects, Springer-Praxis, 2007

Wesley T. Huntress, Jr. and Mikhail Ya. Marov, Soviet Robots in the Solar System: Mission Technologies and Discoveries, Springer-Praxis, 2011

Nicholas L. Johnson, Handbook of Soviet Lunar and Planetary Exploration, Univelt, 1979

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