Here’s a look at the best – and worst – Mars landings of all time.
-- Tariq Malik, Space.com Managing Editor
Despite surviving the long trip the Mars — a major feat in itself— the probe crashed into the Martian surface somewhere west of the Hellas basin while a major dust storm churned across the planet.
The probe launched in 1970 and landed successfully on Dec. 2, 1971 in the Martian uplands of Terra Sirenium after descending through the same dust storm that thwarted its Mars 2 predecessor (see No. 10). But 20 seconds after beginning its first photographic scan, Mars 3’s TV signal went silent for good.
Shaped like an oversized pocket watch, Beagle 2 hitched a ride to the Red Planet aboard Europe’s Mars Express orbiter, but crash landed on the planet rather than bouncing to a stop with airbags. A lower than expected atmospheric density may have caused the probe’s parachute and airbags to deploy too late, an investigation later found.
Some of the probe’s leftover tools and equipment were used to build NASA’s new Mars lander, Phoenix, which landed successfully in May 2008.
Viking 1’s three biology experiments found no clear evidence of Mars microbes. The lander was powered by a plutonium decay-powered radioisotope thermoelectric generator and went silent on Nov. 11, 1982, six years after completing its initial 90-day mission.
Sister ship to Viking 1, Viking 2 set down on the broad, flat plains of Utopia Planitia, where it snapped photos of morning frost and — like its predecessor — found sterile soil that held no clear evidence of microbial life. The lander shut down in 1980.
The Mars Pathfinder Lander used a parachute and airbags to land on the Red Planet, and then deployed Sojourner — a small, six-wheeled rover the size of a microwave oven that explored nearby terrain. A complete success, the mission ended with a final transmission on Sept. 27, 1997.
Spirit spent more than six years — far beyond its initial 90-day mission — exploring Mars before going silent in March 2010.
Opportunity landed on the flat plains of Meridiani Planum, which sits on the side of Mars opposite Gusev crater. Amazingly, the rover landed in a small crater, where a nearby outcrop contained evidence that the region was once soaked with water in ages past. The rover has since explored more than 20 miles (32 kilometers) on Mars and is now exploring the rim of a huge crater called Endeavour.
The solar-powered Phoenix landed near the Martian north pole, where it used a robotic arm-mounted scoop to dig for buried water ice and onboard instruments to determine whether the region may once have been habitable for microbial life. The mission lasted about seven months before the harsh Mars winter ended the lander's activities.
The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity launched toward the Red Planet in late November 2011, landed inside Mars' Gale Crater on Aug. 5, 2012, and soon began hunting for clues about the area's past potential to support microbial life.
The landing was far from easy, however. The 1-ton rover was lowered to the surface on cables by a rocket-powered sky crane, a maneuver that had never been attempted before on another planet. Everything worked perfectly, and NASA will use the same basic technique on its Mars 2020 rover, which is slated to touch down in 2021.