Exploring Mars, Part 1: Mars Global Surveyor

The hunt for the missing Mars Global Surveyor continues

Mars Global Surveyor has been orbiting Mars since 1997, the first of a fleet of probes now exploring the Red Planet. Well past its intended lifespan, it has provided a wealth of data, but unfortunately went silent several weeks ago, and so far neither Earth nor the other probes have been able to detect or contact it. This is a good opportunity to take a brief look at the many craft busy examining our neighbor in space. There are too many to cover in a single post; subsequent posts will continue the series. In the meantime, you may read the New Scientist article discussing the search for Mars Global Surveyor.

Artist’s conception of MGS orbiting Mars
Artist’s concept of MGS orbiting Mars. Artwork Credit: Corby Waste. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Mars Global Surveyor

The Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) was launched by NASA on 7 November 1996; it reached Mars eight months later on 11 September 1997. It was the first U.S. craft to visit Mars in twenty years (the Soviet Union’s Phobos 2 briefly explored Mars in 1998 before prematurely malfunctioning; the United States’ Mars Observer, launched in 1992, failed to function properly). MGS has performed well beyond expectations; it completed its primary mission in 2001 and has had its mission extended several times since then. It has been a highly successful spacecraft, studying Mars extensively and providing more information than all previous missions combined, according to New Scientist. Some of its observations include mapping local magnetic fields (Mars, unlike Earth, does not have a global magnetic field) and discovering repeating weather patterns. And more recently, it had been serving as a communications relay for the other craft exploring the planet, while complementing their observations.

Below is an a composite image MGS took of Mars. It is summer in the northern hemisphere, winter in the southern hemisphere.

Composite MGS image of Mars
Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems.

One of MGS’s achievements was to provide evidence liquid water may have been present near the surface. Gullies like the one below may have been formed by an underground water source (aquifer) which surfaced and eroded the ground, then froze and evaporated.

MGS image of gullies on Mars
Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems.

Further reading