After a 17 year hiatus in Mars exploration, in 1992 a new probe was launched that hoped to rewrite the books on the Red Planet. Its design was based on a commercial communications satellite which had been reconfigured into a Mars orbiter. The Mars Observer would map the surface at 1 meter resolution (Viking�s cameras could only do 100 meter resolution). It would also search for any traces of water in the top meter of the surface. This global coverage would help scientists to understand the geology and climate of Mars, and more details about its interior and surface. It would provide planetary scientists with a basis for comparisons between Earth, Venus, and Mars.
The Mars Observer was successfully catapulted to the Red Planet by a Titan III E launch vehicle on September 25, 1992. Just before it was to enter Mars orbit in August 22, 1993, contact was lost and was never regained. It had only sent back three pictures of Mars, one of which you can see to the right of this text. The reason for the failure of Mars Observer may never be known. A subsequent review by NASA, the Coffey Board, speculated that as Observer fired its rockets to begin the Mars Orbit Insertion maneuver, a fuel line ruptured, causing either an explosion or causing the probe to spin out of control. It may have crashed into the planet, but more likely skipped off into an eternal orbit around the sun.
The Failure of Mars Observer
The failure of Mars Observer was profound. The science instruments were later reflown succesfully on other spacecraft (Mars Global Surveyor and 2001 Mars Odyssey) But Observer proved to be the last of the huge, expensive planetary probes that NASA would ever undertake.
In the mid-90s, NASA’s administrator Dan Goldin hoped to launch “faster, better, cheaper” probes so that if one failed, it would not be as huge of a loss. The new program, called Discovery, was formed to design probes that could do useful science but cost less than $250 million, including the booster. The first Discovery mission was the wildly successful Mars Pathfinder, which seemed to prove the technique.
However, NASA seemed to get too comforable with this idea. The very next two Mars missions, Mars Climare Orbiter (which attempted to refly some of the instruments lost during the Observer failure) and Mars Polar Lander, also failed, seemingly due to the overconfidence of NASA in this low-cost, fast-paced philosophy.
With the recent successes of the Mars Exploration Rovers, NASA has taken a more balanced view; attempting Mars missions every opportunity, but also resourcing them appropriately. Given the public’s fascination with the Red Planet, the funding has been forthcoming to date, enabling NASA to undertake missions with a more balanced philosophy. Yet, one can only wonder at how much farther along the exploration of Mars would be, had the Mars Observer been successful in 1993.