Mars 3

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The Mars program was a series of Mars unmanned landers and orbiters launched by the Soviet Union in the early 1970s.

The Mars 2 and Mars 3 missions consisted of identical spacecraft, each with an orbiter and an attached lander; they were the first human artifacts to touch down on Mars. They were launched by Proton-K rockets with Blok D upper stages.

  • Launch Date/Time:
    • Mars 3: May 28, 1971 at 15:26:30 UTC
  • Launch mass (including fuel):
    • Combined: 4650 kg
    • Orbiter: 3440 kg
    • Lander: 1210 kg
  • On-orbit dry mass: 2265 kg
  • Dimensions: 4.1 meters tall, 2 meters across (5.9 meters across with solar panels deployed)



The orbiter suffered from a partial loss of fuel and did not have enough to put itself into a planned 25 hour orbit. The engine instead performed a truncated burn to put the spacecraft into a long 12 day, 19 hour period orbit about Mars.

The orbiter primary scientific objectives were to image the Martian surface and clouds, determine the temperature on Mars, study the topography, composition and physical properties of the surface, measure properties of the atmosphere, monitor the solar wind and the interplanetary and Martian magnetic fields, and act as communications relays to send signals from the landers to Earth.

The Mars 3 orbiter sent back a large volume of data covering the period from December 1971 to March 1972, although transmissions continued through August. It was announced that Mars 3 had completed their mission by 22 August 1972, after 20 orbits. The probe, combined with Mars 2, sent back a total of 60 pictures. The images and data revealed mountains as high as 22 km, atomic hydrogen and oxygen in the upper atmosphere, surface temperatures ranging from -110 C to +13 C, surface pressures of 5.5 to 6 mb, water vapor concentrations 5000 times less than in Earth's atmosphere, the base of the ionosphere starting at 80 to 110 km altitude, and grains from dust storms as high as 7 km in the atmosphere. The images and data enabled creation of surface relief maps, and gave information on the Martian gravity and magnetic fields.


The Mars 3 descent module was mounted on the bus/orbiter opposite the propulsion system. It consisted of a spherical 1.2 m diameter landing capsule, a 2.9 m diameter conical aerodynamic braking shield, a parachute system and retro-rockets.

The entire descent module had a fueled mass of 1210 kg, the spherical landing capsule accounted for 358 kg of this. An automatic control system consisting of gas micro-engines and pressurized nitrogen containers provided attitude control. Four "gunpowder" engines were mounted to the outer edge of the cone to control pitch and yaw.

The main and auxiliary parachutes, the engine to initiate the landing, and the radar altimeter were mounted on the top section of the lander. Foam was used to absorb shock within the descent module. The landing capsule had four triangular petals which would open after landing, righting the spacecraft and exposing the instrumentation.

The lander was equipped with two television cameras with a 360 degree view of the surface as well as a mass spectrometer to study atmospheric composition; temperature, pressure, and wind sensors; and devices to measure mechanical and chemical properties of the surface, including a mechanical scoop to search for organic materials and signs of life. It also contained a pennant with the Soviet coat of arms.

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