Why Mars Is The Hardest Planet To Land On

Landing on Mars is easier said than done. Over the last 50 years,
spacecraft have landed on more than half a dozen
worlds including Venus, Saturn’s moon Titan, a comet, and more. But nowhere has proven more treacherous than the Red Planet,
Mars. To date, only 40% of attempted landings
have been successful. But just looking at it, Mars
seems pretty harmless, right? It doesn’t have toxic clouds like Venus and there’s plenty of flat,
stable places to land. Unlike a comet. But here’s the thing. It’s not what you can
see that’s the problem. It’s what you can’t. It’s the atmosphere. Mars’ atmosphere is 100
times thinner than Earth’s. Because Mars’ atmosphere is so thin, it makes parachutes less effective. 10 times less effective, in fact. So let’s say you can skydive on Mars. And let’s use the
same-sized parachute as one you would use on Earth. On Earth, skydivers’ chutes slow them down to about 20 miles per hour. But on Mars, even with a parachute, you would still be falling
at 200 miles per hour. Which, obviously is not good. Now you could make your parachute larger and slow down even more and
that’s partly what NASA does. For example, its Curiosity
rover used the largest supersonic parachute at the
time when it landed in 2012. But even that couldn’t
slow Curiosity down enough. To see why let’s go back to the skydive. If you wanted to slow down at
the same landing speed on Mars as on Earth, you would need a parachute that’s 10 times wider. Or about 110 feet in diameter. Wide enough to cover the length of two and half school buses. Now here’s the catch. NASA’s Curiosity rover
weighs about 13 times more than the average person. Which means to slow
down at the same speed, it would need an even bigger chute. One that is about, oh
boy, 400 feet in diameter. But in reality, Curiosity’s parachute was
nowhere near that size. It was only 70 feet in diameter. Why? Because the bigger the chute gets, the greater chance it will rip. In fact, the largest parachute
ever built and tested was just 150 feet wide. So in the end, it’s physically impossible to
build a parachute big enough. Which makes landing on Mars risky at best. So how do space agencies do it? Well, very carefully. First, the spacecraft deploys
a giant parachute to slow down as much as possible. Usually around 200 miles per hour. Then, it fires retrorockets
to take it the rest of the way and that might not sound so
hard but if the parachute doesn’t deploy at just the right time, or the rockets don’t fire
at just the right height, it’s all over. To date only three space agencies have ever tried to land on Mars. NASA, the European Space Agency, and the former Soviet Union. None have a perfect record. So if landing on Mars is so hard, why do we keep doing
it in the first place? Besides the moon, Mars has
more artificial instruments on and around it than anywhere
else in our solar system. And you could say that’s
because Mars is close by or that it might be the best
spot to search for signs of alien life. Or it could be that with
each successful new landing, we come one step closer to
the grandest ambition of all. To become the first species ever to inhabit a world beyond our own.

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