Mars is the fourth planet out from the Sun in our Solar System, and has captivated humans for centuries. It has many features similar to those on Earth, a similar rotational period and seasons to Earth, and it is possible that Mars contains liquid water in some form. Mars research over the past decades has been full of surprises and a great deal of information, and currently Mars research is a priority in many nations’ space programs.
One of the most recent missions to Mars was the Phoenix mission, which launched on 4 August, 2007. The lander reached the surface on 25 May, 2008, and began its mission of searching for signs of microbial life, and for further exploring the history of water on and below the surface of the planet. Phoenix represented a new chapter in Mars research, as it was the first mission to be led by a university team, headed by the University of Arizona, and with partners from universities in six nations, as well as space organizations in various countries and the private sector. This type of inter-agency cooperation is likely to be a common theme in future Mars research, as funds become scarcer at the governmental level, and as the potential of university researchers to add substantially to missions becomes more apparent.
The planet also has three operational orbiters around it, more than any planet aside from Earth. The Mars Express was launched by the European Space Agency in June of 2003, and was the first large-scale mission launched by the ESA. The Mars Express has provided a great deal of information to scientists, and has also served as a support orbiter for landing missions. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched by NASA in August of 2005, acts as a reconnaissance vehicle for landing missions and other orbiters, by tracking weather information and analyzing surface conditions. The orbiter also has the most advanced telecommunications equipment to date, allowing massive amounts of data to be transmitted back to Earth.
Following the Phoenix mission, a number of new missions are planned for Mars, expanding the scope of Mars research today. In 2011, an improved version of the Mars Exploration Rovers, called the Mars Science Laboratory, will set off for Mars. The MSL will be capable of all that the Mars Rovers were, but will be much faster, and have added capabilities, like a laser analyzer that can detect the composition of rocks from great distances.
Finland and Russia are joining forces in the MetNet program, which aims to provide a much more comprehensive way to look at Mars. Dozens of rovers will be set on the planet at different points, to set up a network of observers which can start to take a deeper look at the atmospherics and meteorology of Mars. These rovers will be launched from 2009 through 2019.
Finally, both the European Space Agency and NASA have plans to send a manned expedition to Mars in the coming decades. NASA is planning on using the Orion mission back to the moon around 2020 as a gateway to jumping all the way to Mars by 2037. The European Space Agency will similarly start missions leading towards an eventual manned mission in the 2030s, including a probe that will return to Earth with samples of Mars.