Skip to main content

The Boldest Mars Missions in History

Curiosity in Cruise
This artist's impression shows the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft after its cruise stage has been jettisoned, roughly 10 minutes before it enters the atmosphere of Mars.
(Image: © NASA)

We Choose to Go to Mars

NASA, ESA, The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), J. Bell (Cornell University), and M. Wolff (Space Science Institute)

Humanity has been sending spacecraft to Mars since the Soviet Union launched Marsnik 1 on Oct. 10, 1960 (but it failed to reach its goal). To mark the latest Red Planet arrival — NASA's huge Mars rover Curiosity — SPACE.com has taken a look back at some of the most spectacular successes (and failures) in humanity's bid to reach the Red Planet.

Click the "Next" button for our list of the most audacious attempts to explore Mars.

FIRST STOP: Mars 2

Mars 2 Orbiter and Lander

NASA

The Soviet Union launched the Mars 2 Orbiter on May 19, 1971. The spacecraft arrived at Mars and released its lander on November 27, 1971. Unfortunately the lander crashed onto the Martian surface. However, it still represents the first man-made object on Mars. [Best (and Worst) Mars Landings]

NEXT: Mariner 9 in Mars Orbit

Mariner 9

NASA

The United States sent the Mariner 9 towards Mars on May 30, 1971. Mariner 9 arrived at Mars on Nov. 14, 1971, where it became the first spacecraft to orbit another planet. Mariner 9 was deactivated on Oct. 27, 1972, but it is expected to remain in orbit until 2022. [History of Mars Missions: A Timeline]

NEXT: Viking Landers' Mars Success

Viking 1 & 2

NASA's Viking 1 and Viking 2 spacecraft each consisted of an orbiter and lander. Viking 1 launched on Aug. 20, 1975, and after a month of searching for landing sites, sent the Viking 1 Lander to the surface of Mars on July 20, 1976 - the first successful landing on Mars. Viking 2 spacecraft launched Sept. 9, 1975, and its lander touched down on Sept. 3, 1976. The Viking craft proved to be a huge success, and provided the most complete view of Mars at the time, producing over 50,000 photos of the planet. Viking 1 orbiter may crash and possibly contaminate the planet as soon as 2019. [Best Mars Landings Ever]

NEXT: Tiny Mars Rover Sojourner

Mars Pathfinder Spacecraft and Sojourner Rover

NASA

NASA launched the Pathfinder spacecraft on Dec. 4, 1996, and it arrived at Mars on July 4, 1997. Sojourner Rover emerged from Pathfinder on July 6, making it the first wheeled vehicle on Mars. Sojourner was the first rover to operate on another planet. Only two feet in length (63 cm), the rover possessed six wheels. The final contact with Pathfinder was on Sept. 27, 1997. [Best Mars Landings Ever]

NEXT: Japan's Mars Emissary

Japan's Nozomi Mars Probe

NASA

Japan launched the Nozomi spacecraft, the nation's first planetary mission, on July 4, 1998. The orbiting mission was designed to study the Martian upper atmosphere and its interaction with the solar wind. However, on December 20, 1998, a malfunctioning valve left the spacecraft unable to head to Mars as planned. An amended plan to reach Mars also failed, and efforts to save the mission ended on Dec. 9, 2003. In the words of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency: "NOZOMI became an artificial planet that flies forever in orbit around the sun near that of Mars." [History of Mars Missions: A Timeline]

NEXT: Mars Odyssey Lives On

Mars Odyssey

\NASA/JPL-Caltech

The 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft launched on April 7, 2001. It arrived in orbit around Mars on October 24, 2001. Its planned mission ended in 2004, but it continues in operation at the time of this writing. It broke the record for longest serving spacecraft at Mars on Dec. 15, 2010. [Odyssey Mars Mission in Pictures]

Spirit and Opportunity Rovers

NASA/JPL

NASA's golf cart-size Spirit and Opportunity Rovers launched to Mars in 2003 and used giant airbags to cushion their landings in January 2004. The amazingly long-lived rovers far outstripped their planned missions of 90 Martian solar days. Spirit plugged away until April 2009, when it got stuck in deep sand. It went silent on March 22, 2010 and was declared dead a year later.

Opportunity, however, is still alive and continues to explore the Martian surface. It has traveled 22.11 miles (35.58 kilometers) as of February 2013. [Latest Mars Pictures by Opportunity]

NEXT: Europe's Mars Orbiter and Lander

Europe's Mars Express and Beagle 2 Lander

ESA.

The European Space Agency (ESA) launched its first planetary explorer, the Mars Express spacecraft, on June 3, 2003. On Dec. 19, 2003, the Beagle 2 Lander was released. Unfortunately, contact with the lander was broken and it was subsequently declared lost. Mars Express orbiter completed its mission in 2005, and continues to operate at the time of this writing, providing many images from its High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC). [Mars Photos by Mars Express]

NEXT: A Phoenix on Mars

Phoenix Mars Lander

JPL/Corby Waste

NASA's Phoenix lander launched on Aug. 4, 2007, and landed near the Martian north pole on May 25, 2008. It completed its mission, including verifying the presence of water-ice in the Martian subsurface. However the lander was not designed to withstand a polar Martian winter. The mission was ended on May 24, 2010. [Phoenix Lander on Mars (Photos)]

NEXT: Eyes of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

NASA

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) lifted off on Aug. 12, 2005, and arrived at the Red Planet in March 2006. It completed its two-year primary science phase, and is in the extended phase of its mission, where it continues to return copious amounts of information. [Mars Photos by MRO Spacecraft]

NEXT: Russia and China Aim for Mars

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.