The First Martian Rover

Poor PROP-M, lost in 1971, never got the chance to strut its stuff on Mars

Add two more stripes to this ingenious chart showing all the attempts over the past 50 years to send spacecraft to Mars. Let’s hope that the stripe for the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory, which launched successfully on Saturday, reaches all the way to the surface of the planet.

Sadly, the stripe for Russia’s Phobos-Grunt Mars spacecraft, currently incommunicado in Earth orbit, appears doomed to end at the outside, “fail” ring, which may also spell the end of the country’s planetary program.

The apparent demise of Phobos-Grunt got me reading up on the history of Russian Mars exploration, looking for stories from happier days.  I hadn’t known about PrOP-M, the first rover (or maybe crawler is a better word) launched to Mars. It ended up failing , too, but it would have been fun to watch had it succeeded.

By 1971 the Soviets had already landed one Lunokhod rover on the moon’s surface. The 10-pound PROP-M, included as a payload on the Mars 3 lander launched in May 1971, was much more modest.  After Mars 3 touched down, the rover, attached to a 15-meter umbilical cord, was designed to shuffle away from the lander on two ski-like contraptions. The video below (queued up here at the 3:51 mark) shows how the rover maneuvered itself.  Unfortunately, Mars 3 went silent immediately after it touched down, and PROP-M was never heard from again. NASA didn’t land its own rover on Mars until 1997, when Sojourner rolled off of the Mars Pathfinder.

When Curiosity touches down on Mars next August, it should tip its electronic head in the direction of PROP-M, wherever it lies on the unforgiving plains of Mars.