Humans have hurled billions of dollars at an adjacent red planet. Some crafts landed on Mars, some overshot it, some crashed into it, some made it into Earth orbit and not an inch farther and some just hurtled into the ocean. So in the half-century we’ve been doing this, what’s been the best scientific mission to Mars? How about the coolest thing we found when we got there? Since this month of Mars coverage at FiveThirtyEight happens to coincide with the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, we elected to settle this March Madness style, with a tournament.
Because believe us, there are multiple direct links between Mars and college basketball that make this exercise far more than just a modest SEO cash-in. Both involve dizzying odds and elementary physics. And legendary UCLA hoops coach John Wooden said, “Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do,” just as the endlessly quip-able rocket scientist Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky gave us essentially the same saying, “Герои и смельчаки проложат первые воздушные тропы трасс.”1 And the California Institute of Technology can usually be counted on to pull off one solid win every couple of years in both Martian exploration and NCAA men’s basketball.
Here are the four regions of competition:
- Landers and rovers
- Flybys and the Martian features they’ve photographed
- Total failures
1: Mariner 9, 1971; 2: Mars Global Surveyor, 1996; 3: Mars Express orbiter, 2003; 4: Mars Odyssey, 2001; 5: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, 2005; 6: Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN), 2013; 7: Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), 2013; 8: ExoMars Orbiter, 2016; 9: Viking 1 orbiter, 1975; 10: Viking 2 orbiter, 1975; 11: Mars 5, 1973; 12: Mars 3 orbiter, 1971; 13: Phobos 2 orbiter, 1988; 14: Mars 6 orbiter, 1973; 15: Mars 2 orbiter, 1971; 16: Mars 4, 1973
This was an exciting category. In the first round, No. 10-seed Viking 2 orbiter defeated the far more sophisticated No. 7-seed, Mars Orbiter Mission. That was the biggest upset in this region. The most exciting matchup came in round 2: No. 4 Mars Odyssey vs. No. 5 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the modern workhorse of the Martian orbiters. Odyssey dropped its game in the round of 32 to Reconnaissance, which would go on to knock out legendary orbiter Mariner 9 in the Sweet 16.
No. 2 Mars Global Surveyor vs. No. 3 Mars Express Orbiter
No. 1 Mariner 9 vs. No. 5 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
Elite Eight: Mars Express Orbiter vs. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
Final Four contender: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
The Landers and Rovers
1: Curiosity rover, 2011; 2: Phoenix Mars lander, 2007; 3: Spirit rover, 2003; 4: Opportunity, Mars Exploration Rover, 2003; 5: Viking 1 lander, 1975; 6: Viking 2 lander, 1975; 7: Sojourner, 1996; 8: Pathfinder, 1996; 9: Mars 3 lander, 1971; 10: Mars 6 lander, 1973; 11: Beagle 2 lander, 2003; 12: Schiaparelli EDL demo lander, 2016; 13: Mars 2 lander, 1971; 14: Mars 7 lander, 1973; 15: Phobos 2 lander — stationary platform, 1988; 16: Phobos 2 lander — mobile “hopper,” 1988
Conservative bracketologists made out like kings in this conference. It was total chalk: There were no upsets. Failed missions such as the Beagle, Schiaparelli and Mars 2 and 7 predictably fell to powerhouse contenders like Sojourner, the first spacecraft to drive around on another planet, and, of course, the Viking 1 and 2 landers, the first two spacecraft to ever touch down on alien soil (Viking 1 touched down first, in July 1976). But in later rounds, the younger generation knocked out these older missions, and it was a battle among rovers.
The Pathfinder lander, the No. 8-seed, fell to top-seeded Curiosity in the round of 32; that’s our newest rover, and it also beat No. 5 Viking 1. No. 6 Viking 2 fell to No. 3 Spirit, one of the twin Mars Exploration Rovers launched in 2003. Spirit and Opportunity were separated when Curiosity steamrolled ahead and beat Opportunity in the Sweet 16. Fan favorite Spirit, which died on Mars in 2011 after eight years of record-setting science, went on to beat the Phoenix Mars lander in the Elite Eight before finally falling to Curiosity, the six-wheeled car that arrived on Mars in 2012.
Curiosity is by far the most audacious mission ever attempted, let alone achieved, so it’s fitting that this beefy rover represents the region in the Final Four.
No. 1 Curiosity rover vs. No. 4 Opportunity rover
No. 2 Phoenix Mars lander vs. No. 3 Spirit rover
Elite Eight: Curiosity rover vs. Spirit rover
Final Four contender: Curiosity rover
The Flybys and Features
1: Mariner 4, 1964; 2: Mariner 6, 1969; 3: Valles Marineris; 4: Olympus Mons; 5: Mariner 7, 1969; 6: Nozomi, 1998; 7: Endeavour Crater; 8: Gusev Crater; 9: North Pole; 10: Recurring Slope Lineae; 11: Phobos; 12: Deimos; 13: Hellas Basin; 14: Rings; 15: Gale Crater/Mount Sharp; 16: Acidalia Planitia
Mars may be lifeless and rusted, but the beauty of its geologic features can’t be beat. And that was literally the case in this region: Martian landmarks consistently bested the robotic explorers that photographed them.
The red planet boasts the biggest volcanoes and canyons in the solar system, not to mention swirling polar ice caps and giant craters. These stunning landmarks had some stunning upsets early on, with No. 15-seed Gale Crater — the Curiosity rover’s home — beating flyby satellite No. 2-seed Mariner 6 in the first round. Also in the round of 64, No. 6 Nozomi, a Japanese satellite that failed to reach orbit, went down in somewhat appropriate fashion: It lost to the O.G. satellite, the moon Phobos (No. 11). In an upset for the ages, the North Pole bested No. 1-seed Mariner 4, the first successful Mars mission, in the round of 32, before going on to lose to mega-volcano Olympus Mons in the Sweet 16.
Gale Crater later lost to Recurring Slope Lineae, which are river-like lines on Mars that appear sporadically and just might be evidence of water flowing today (though scientists are still furiously debating this). Just as in real life, the RSL’s puny cracks were no match for No. 3-seed Valles Marineris, a mammoth canyon that’s as wide as the continental United States. The grandest canyon of them all represents the features and photographers region in the Final Four.
No. 9 North Pole vs. No. 4 Olympus Mons
No. 3 Valles Marineris vs. No. 10 Recurring Slope Lineae
Elite Eight: Valles Marineris vs. Olympus Mons
Final Four contender: Valles Marineris
1: Mars Climate Orbiter, 1998; 2: Mars Polar Lander, 1999; 3: Yinghuo-1, 2011; 4: Phobos-Grunt, 2011; 5: Zond 2, 1964; 6: Mariner 3, 1964; 7: Korabl 13, 1962; 8: Mars 1, 1962; 9: Korabl 11, 1962; 10: Korabl 5, 1960; 11: Korabl 4, 1960; 12: Kosmos 419, 1971; play-in: Mars 1969B, 1969; play-in: Mars 1969A, 1969; play-in: Mariner 8, 1971; play-in: Phobos 1 orbiter, 1988; play-in: Mars Observer, 1992; play-in: Mars 96, 1996; play-in: Deep Space 2 Probe “Scott,” 1999; play-in: Deep Space 2 Probe “Amundsen,” 1999
The most extensive category by far is the failures region because getting something into Earth’s orbit — not to mention Mars’s — is still difficult. The worse-seeded missions never even made it offworld, and the ones that performed the best at least managed to fail in spectacular style. The No. 2-seeded Mars Polar Lander and No. 8 Mars 1 both reached the Sweet 16, presumably because they made it at least part of the way to the red planet; the former crashing into the planet (taking two other contenders with it4) and the latter making it 66 million miles before the radio failed. Fan favorite Korabl 11, a 9-seed, got knocked out of the tournament early, despite failing so hard in real life that the U.S. government thought it was an intercontinental ballistic missile related to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Still, the winner of this region had to be the top-seeded Mars Climate Orbiter, and Walt could not be happier. You first learn about measurement systems — metric and imperial measures — in the fourth grade. For Walt, this was in 1999. That year, the Mars Climate Orbiter — with the full intention of entering orbit — crashed into the planet because someone somewhere forgot to convert imperial measures into the metric system. As a result, the Mars Climate Orbiter came up during every single year of primary education as the Icarus anecdote reminding students to double-check their work. For its bold and eternal legacy as the cock-up that will teach generations of scientists to triple-check their numbers before strapping a half-billion dollars to a rocketship, it’s this region’s winner.
No. 1 Mars Climate Orbiter vs. No. 8 Mars 1
No. 2 Mars Polar Lander vs. No. 14 Mars Observer
Elite Eight: Mars Climate Orbiter vs. Mars Observer
Final Four contender: Mars Climate Orbiter
The Final Four
No. 1 Curiosity rover defeats No. 3 Valles Marineris
No. 5 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter defeats No. 1 Mars Climate Orbiter
It’s only fitting that No. 1-seed Curiosity found itself matched up against the trusty Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been a workhorse on Mars since its arrival in 2006. The orbiter — MRO to its friends — was instrumental in finding a landing site for Curiosity, as well as photographing many of Mars’s most stunning landscape features.
MRO’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera photographs Mars for scientific purposes — but the images are even better for aesthetic purposes. Never let anyone tell you Mars is not lovely to behold. This tool, from the camera’s managers at the University of Arizona, lets you zoom in on any area of Mars and see astonishing detail in a range of colors.
MRO has also helped scientists study the missions that came before it. In early 2015, MRO found the Beagle 2 Mars lander, lost in 2003. And it was MRO that found the charred remains of the Schiaparelli lander, which crashed into Mars in October 2016.
But as impressive as MRO is, flying around a planet is nothing compared to landing on it. Ultimately, Curiosity lived up to its No. 1 ranking and took home the biggest prize, the Mars Madness championship. Still, for many scientists and space enthusiasts alike, going to Mars with robots just isn’t the same as landing there with humans. No matter how successful or popular, rovers, orbiters and landers just wouldn’t be able to compete with a human crew. But that’s another competition entirely.
No. 1 Curiosity rover defeats No. 5 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
Per tradition, here is Curiosity’s tournament sizzle reel set to “One Shining Moment”:
CORRECTION (March 29, 5:45 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misidentified the failed Soviet Mars mission that the U.S. thought was an ICBM. It was Korabl 11, a 9-seed, not Korabl 13, a 7-seed.