The long-anticipated Mars 96 mission ended in tragic failure shortly after launch the night of November 16, 1996.
The scope of Mars 96 was not widely appreciated. At 6.7 metric tons, this mission was the heaviest and probably the most ambitious planetary mission ever launched by any country. It was the last in a long string of disappointing Soviet and now Russian attempts to reach Mars, dating back to 1960. The combined spacecraft included an orbiter (with more than 20 science instruments), two landers (each with seven instruments), and two penetrators (with 10 instruments each). The loss was not confined to Russia. Several European countries had major science instruments aboard, including very high-quality German cameras and a French imaging spectrometer. Germany, France, and Finland alone spent more than $200M on this mission, huge sums relative to the size of their space budgets. And the U.S. had a stake too: the Mars Oxidant Experiment (MOx) was to be delivered to the Martian surface by the two landers, termed "small stations." But the world's space science community was the biggest loser. Mars 96 carried some unique instrumentation that is unlikely to be repeated in the near future. We will never know what we didn't learn from Mars 96.
What happened? Mars 96 was launched by the traditionally reliable Proton booster from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 11:49 p.m. Moscow time, exactly as scheduled. Many foreign observers were present, including several Americans. Apparently, the launch was normal through the first burn of the fourth stage, putting the combined stage and spacecraft into a parking orbit. The second burn of the fourth stage, programmed for several minutes, was scheduled to occur over the Bay of Guinea, southwest of Africa. For reasons still unknown, the second burn terminated after only 4 seconds. The spacecraft separated from the launch vehicle and started its own engine as programmed; this was to provide the final kick to Mars. But since the fourth stage had left the spacecraft in a low parking orbit, and in an unexpected orientation, the final burn resulted in only a higher apogee and a perigee in the upper atmosphere at 70 km altitude. After three orbits, the spacecraft impacted near the coast of Chile, either offshore or in Chile or Bolivia. The fourth stage fell November 17 in the Pacific near Easter Island.
Imprecise data on what happened led to much confusion. No tracking ships were deployed to the South Atlantic, so the last fourth-stage burn was not observed directly. The spacecraft came into view of the Russian tracking station at Evpatoriya in the Crimea, and some telemetry was received. After detecting some anomalies, Russia requested assistance from the U.S. Space Command to better understand the status of their mission. Because there was a small amount of plutonium on board the small stations and penetrators, there was some concern about where this spacecraft might come down. Space Command tracked the spent fourth stage, thought it was either the spacecraft or the combined spacecraft and stage, and predicted an impact point in the southern hemisphere, possibly in Australia. This incorrect prediction was passed on to the National Security Council (NSC), who alerted the President, then in Hawaii. President Clinton, on the strength of the NSC alert, called the Australian Prime Minister to warn him that the Mars 96 spacecraft might come down in his country. Actually, the spacecraft was already down. Russia had predicted the impact point and time in the Eastern Pacific, and announced them the morning after the launch. After the fact, review by Space Command confirmed the earlier Russian announcements. There were some sightings of sky phenomena in Chile and unconfirmed reports of objects on the ground, but so far, the final resting place of Mars 96 is still unknown.
What happens next? As noted above, Europe had nearly all their Mars hopes riding on Mars 96. Earlier in the year, the European Space Agency chose not to pursue a multilander mission for the 2003 opportunity, InterMarsNet; hence, this was the last significant opportunity for European science at Mars. The failure leaves Europe out of the Mars game until the next opportunity (2005). Similarly, in Russia, no other planetary missions are approved. The next space science effort is programmed to be a series of astrophysics missions, "Spektr." Russia has talked of a more modest Mars program, based on the Molniya launcher, similar in class to the U.S. Delta. There is a tentative Mars Together 2001 plan on the table, wherein Russia would launch a Marsokhod rover on Molniya and the U.S. would provide the data return path via an orbiter. As yet, Russia has not responded to this proposal.
Russia has some major questions to face: Will they continue planetary exploration at all? If so, how? Will they give up on Mars, a target of interest for nearly 40 years?
There are some lessons for all in the Mars 96 experience. When there
are many eggs in one basket, many eggs can get broken. This should reinforce
the resolve to split our bets and stay with the Mars Surveyor strategy of
several smaller missions, two launches per opportunity. Confidence in Russia
has dropped. Many were looking for Mars 96 to boost confidence; it had the
opposite effect. Russian difficulties in honoring their commitments to the
International Space Station contribute to the problem. Tracking coverage
during critical events can be very important, even when those events are
routine. Some contingency planning in advance of a risky step is better
than no contingency planning. No one associated with Mars 96 was prepared
for a launch failure, and no one knew quite what to do when it happened.
Space exploration is a risky business, of which we are reminded all too
--Roger Bourke, Mars Exploration Directorate