I was wondering what the highest atmospheric entry velocity of any lander was at Mars, for direct-entry landers (as opposed to those released from an orbiter), the atmospheric entry velocity tends to range from 5.6 km/s to 5.8 km/s, this is the case for landers such as Mars 3, Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity and this is the relative velocity to be expected for a Hohmann transfer from Earth to Mars.

On the other hand, for Pathfinder I've found reference to the atmospheric entry velocity being 7.5 km/s or even as high as 7.65 km/s, this is partly explained by pathfinder entering retrograde so the rotation of Mars is adding to the relative velocity instead of subtracting from it for a prograde entry, but this should only account for a difference of around 0.4 km/s, meaning that Pathfinder was still going more than 1 km/s faster relative to Mars than any other lander.

Initially I thought that the numbers for Pathfinder I had found might be wrong, but there are numerous references to a high atmospheric entry velocity, the most authoritative value I could find is 7.479 km/s from a paper by NASA/JPL based on an after the fact analysis of the mission:

"Mars Pathfinder best-estimated atmospheric entry conditions."

Some other references to similarly high velocities: 7.5 km/s, 7.6 km/s, 7.65 km/s

Based on my rudimentary understanding of interplanetary transfers, I would assume the high entry velocity is due to a slightly "off window" launch resulting in a sub-optimal encounter with Mars compared to a Hohmann transfer, however I could find little information about the launch or what might have made it unusual.

  • $\begingroup$ A Hohmann transfer between Earth and Mars is impossible. The orbital planes of Earth and Mars are inclined with respect to one another, and Mars has a markedly noncircular orbit. $\endgroup$ Feb 6 '21 at 6:55
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidHammen there is nothing technically incorrect about what you say, but it's not like "Hohmann transfer orbit" is not used when referring to real world interplanetary transfers. Personally, when applied to the real world, I think of it as being the transfer orbit that is as close to being bi-tangential as possible, and which will probably also be the local optima. $\endgroup$ Feb 6 '21 at 11:53
  • $\begingroup$ @BlakeWalsh Counter intuitively, the 'bi-tangential' transfer that (I think) you're envisioning is generally the least efficient transfer between real planets ;) $\endgroup$ Apr 20 '21 at 16:18
  • $\begingroup$ @BrendanLuke15 I mean one of the least efficient transfers $\endgroup$ Apr 20 '21 at 17:01
  • $\begingroup$ @BrendanLuke15 just to be clear I'd consider this an example: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/… $\endgroup$ Apr 20 '21 at 19:39


From my experience launch and arrival characteristics (velocities) are not strongly correlated for a given launch window, though I don't know why.

You may have heard of 'Pork Chop Plots' to describe (launch) C3 requirements (among other information) for an interplanetary transfer. Here is one I made for a project to send a lander to Venus: Launch window to Venus C3 reqs.

In compliment to determining launch C3 requirements you can also determine arrival characteristics: Launch and Arrival characteristics of Venus 2026L window

As is seen, the local minimum (in green) launch and arrival energies for a given time window do not necessarily match up. It should be noted that what is shown on the right hand arrival side is not entry velocity but hyperbolic excess velocity or the square root of C3, but this can easily be used to find entry velocity and is analogous to it (bigger value = higher entry velocity).

My best guess is that the need for launch vehicle performance (launch C3, left hand side) outweighed the need for a low energy arrival (entry velocity [analog], right hand side) and the ideal launch C3 coincided with a less than ideal arrival velocity for Mars Pathfinder. (Similar to what's shown in the image)

This is supported by the launch mass of 890 kg (NASA Pathfinder fact sheet) being very close to performance limit of its Delta II 7925 launcher (Delta II payload planners guide): Delta II high energy payload performance

(I am looking around the $C3< 20 km^2/s^2$ mark as a decent guess)

The fact sheet even mentions that it needed "a payload assist module", basically an extra stage to give it more oomph to get to Mars, so they really needed that ideal launch C3.

Post Script Soapbox :)

This alludes to an interesting paradigm shift in mission designer's thinking on launch vehicles. Classically, the launch vehicle has been the biggest cost component of a mission so many efforts were made to reduce the need for a larger more expensive launch vehicle. Nowadays launch vehicles are so powerful and 'cheap' that different concerns can be addressed with an off-nominal launch C3 requirement.

As a real world example, consider that the Mars Insight mission choose to take a C3 and launch vehicle performance penalty to launch from California instead of from Florida for a more efficient east coast launch. I don't think this had any real justification other than to let the California folk witness an interplanetary launch as the spacecraft was being shipped from Denver, CO anyways according to Wikipedia.


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