|Pioneer Venus Orbiter (PVO) in Venus Orbit. The Pioneer Mars Orbiter (PMO) would have been based on this design. Image credit: NASA|
Pioneer 5 (March 1960), a unique design, was a pathfinder for future NASA interplanetary missions. Managed by NASA's Ames Research Center (ARC), it set a new record by transmitting until it was 36.2 million kilometers from Earth.
The Pioneer series seemed to draw to a close. In 1965, however, NASA ARC applied the name to its drum-shaped interplanetary "weather stations." The first, Pioneer 6, entered solar orbit between Earth and Venus in December 1965, where it monitored magnetic fields and radiation. Pioneers 7, 8, and 9 performed similarly prosaic (and generally little noticed) missions.
|Pioneer 5, intended originally as a Venus probe set for launch in June 1959, was launched instead in March 1960 as a pathfinder for subsequent NASA planetary missions. Image credit: NASA|
|Pioneers 6 through 9 were drum-shaped spacecraft that measured "space weather" conditions in interplanetary space near Earth's orbit. Image credit: NASA|
The final Pioneer launches occurred in 1978. The Pioneer Venus Multiprobe spacecraft dropped four instrumented capsules on Venus, while Pioneer Venus Orbiter (PVO) surveyed the planet until 1992. The latter was informally designated Pioneer 12 and the former Pioneer 13.
|Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11, the only nuclear Pioneers, were Earth's first probes to traverse the Asteroid Belt and voyage through the outer Solar System. Image credit: NASA|
|Pioneer Venus Multiprobe deploys its one large and three small atmosphere probes. Against expectations, two probes survived landing and return data from the surface of Venus. No other U.S. spacecraft has landed intact on Venus. Image credit: NASA|
Hughes described the PVO upon which the PMO would be based as drum 2.5 meters in diameter and 1.2 meters tall with a 3.3-meter antenna mast on top and a solid-propellant Venus orbit insertion motor on the bottom. The company then cited differences between the PMO and PVO designs: for example, PMO's orbit insertion motor would need to be larger since it would arrive at Mars traveling faster than PVO would at Venus. In addition, PMO would operate in Mars orbit, about twice as far from the Sun as Venus, so solar cells would entirely cover its sides so that they could make enough electricity to operate the spacecraft's systems. PVO would operate in Venus orbit, so it would need to be only partly covered with solar cells.
The most obvious difference between the PVO and PMO designs were the Mars spacecraft's six 2.3-meter-long, 0.3-meter-diameter penetrator launch tubes. These would replace PVO's science instruments; apart from unspecified instruments in the penetrators, PMO would carry no science payload.
PMO, like PVO, would leave Earth on an two-stage Atlas-Centaur rocket. Because PMO would weigh more than PVO (1091 kilograms versus 523 kilograms), however, it would need a solid-propellant third stage to complete Earth escape. To make room for the third stage and penetrators, PMO's conical launch shroud would be 0.8 meters longer than its PVO counterpart.
PMO would need to reach Mars on 7 September 1980 so that its Mars orbit insertion motor could place it in its planned Mars orbit. To reach the planet on that date, PMO would need to depart Earth during one of 10 consecutive daily launch opportunities starting on 28 October 1979. 2 November 1979 would be the nominal launch date. The launch opportunities would only last from 10 to 15 minutes each.
The Centaur second stage would place PMO into a low-Earth orbit, then would ignite again 30 minutes later to begin pushing the spacecraft out of Earth orbit. The third-stage motor would then ignite to place PMO on course for Mars. PMO would weigh 1069 kilograms after third-stage separation. Launch on 2 November 1979 would yield a 310-day Earth-Mars transfer.
Following third-stage separation, PMO would use hydrazine thrusters to set itself spinning at 15 revolutions per minute (RPM) for stabilization. The antenna mast bearing the high-gain, low-gain, and two penetrator data reception antennas would revolve in the opposite direction at the same rate, so would appear to stand still. Controllers on Earth would use the thrusters to carefully target PMO so that it would not accidentally hit Mars and introduce terrestrial microbes. They would perform a final course correction 30 days before Mars arrival.
One day out from Mars, on 6 September 1980, PMO would orient itself for its Mars orbit insertion burn and increase its spin rate to 30 RPM. The spacecraft's high-gain antenna would not point at Earth during the insertion burn. Controllers on Earth could, however, send PMO commands through the low-gain antenna.
|Candidate PMO orbits. Image credit: Hughes Aircraft Company|
The PMO mission's Mars orbit phase would last one martian year (686 terrestrial days). During this mission phase, PMO would deploy its six 45-kilogram penetrators singly and in pairs using a penetrator deployment system based on the Hughes-built TOW missile launcher. Before Earth departure the penetrators would be sealed inside their launch tubes and heated to kill hitchhiking microbes.
After impact, the penetrator would extend its antenna and begin transmitting data from its science instruments. PMO would record the penetrator data for relay to Earth through its high-gain dish. Chemical batteries in the penetrators would enable each to collect and transmit data from Mars for about eight days.
For their weak signals to be received, the penetrators would need to impact the surface not far from PMO's periapsis point. The orbiter could maintain radio contact with a given penetrator for at least eight minutes at a time. A PMO in south polar orbit would initially place its penetrators between 63° and 87° south; a north-polar-orbiting PMO would place them between 56° and 80° north. Periapsis would gradually shift north or south, however, permitting placement at other latitudes. With all six penetrators deployed, PMO would have a mass of 412 kilograms.
Viking 1 and Viking 2, each of which comprised a three-legged lander and an orbiter bearing cameras, were designed with certain assumptions in mind; for example, that microbial life on Mars would be ubiquitous, so that a scoop of surface dust and a jury of three biological experiments would readily reveal its presence. Unfortunately for the proposed 1979 PMO mission and NASA Mars exploration planning in general, the Viking biology experiments yielded equivocal results that were generally interpreted as indicative of a lifeless world. This, combined with the loss of the Mars Observer spacecraft as it attempted capture into Mars orbit in 1993, helped to create a two-decade gap during which no new U.S. spacecraft explored Mars.
Pioneer Mars Surface Penetrator Mission: Mission Analysis and Orbiter Design, Hughes Aircraft Company, August 1974
Pioneer Mars 1979 Mission Options, A. Friedlander, W. Hartmann, and J. Niehoff, Science Applications, Inc., 29 January 1974, pp. 61-99
Solar System Log, Andrew Wilson, Jane's, 1986, pp. 12-13, 16-17, 21
The Russians are Roving! The Russians are Roving! A 1970 JPL Plan for a 1979 Mars Rover
Prelude to Mars Sample Return: the Mars 1984 Mission (1977)