Exploring the Red Planet
2003 Rovers Mars Express Beagle 2 Japan Nozomi
2005 Orbiter 2007 Scout Smart Lander Sample Return
All Probes Pathfinder 2001 Odyssey Global Surveyor
Mariners Vikings Phobos Polar/Climate
Future Plans Other Places Human Trips Mars the Planet

A timeline of past explorations:

Many Robots From Earth Have Probed Mars

1960s     1970s     1980s     1990s     2000s     New Era     Table of Flights     Future Probes

Mars Explore Timeline The United States and Russia have spent billions over four decades trying to land a spacecraft on Mars. Many probes have been sent.

On December 2, 1971, the Soviet Union's Mars 3 was the first spacecraft to make a successful soft landing on Mars.

Later, three American spacecraft completed highly successful landings on the surface — the pair of Viking landers in 1976 and Mars Pathfinder 21 years later in 1997.

In addition, several spacecraft have either flown by the Red Planet, sending back picture postcards as they traveled on, or they have dropped successfully into orbit around Mars.

Numerous other spacecraft over the years either failed to leave Earth at all or were unable to find their way correctly to the Red Planet.

Now, five new craft from America, Europe and Japan are prepared to visit Mars in 2004. If all work as planned, two will remain in orbit around the planet while three landers touch down. The flotilla includes Europe's and Japan's first solo missions to Mars.

The 1960s
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By 1960, human space engineers were ready to build and send interplanetary science probes away from Earth toward the Moon and planets. Since then, some two dozen unmanned Mars explorers have been fired into interplanetary space from the U.S. and the USSR to look at the Red Planet and its moons Phobos and Deimos.

The USSR's Mars 1, launched in November 1962, was the first attempt to probe Mars. Unfortunately, contact was lost with the spacecraft only 60 million miles along its route to the Red Planet.

America's Mariner 4 launched in November 1964 was the first successful probe to reach Mars, sending back 22 photos as it flew by in July 1965. The first close-up pictures ever of another world showed a barren wilderness.

Meanwhile, a Soviet probe intended for Mars missed the 1965 window of opportunity for a launch, but was fired off anyway. It faxed back to Earth photographs of the far side of the Moon as it flew away into an orbit around the Sun.

In 1969, the U.S. probes Mariner 6 and Mariner 7 successfully completed the first dual-spacecraft mission to the Red Planet, sending back more than 100 pictures and data on the atmosphere and surface.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union lost two Mars probes during their launches.

The 1970s
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In 1971, the U.S. suffered a loss when the probe Mariner 8 splashed into the ocean off Puerto Rico during launch.

But then the first man-made satellite to orbit a planet other than Earth was America's Mariner 9 which brought us the first close-ups of the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos. Launched toward Mars in May 1971, Mariner 9 arrived in a 12-hour orbit around the Red Planet in that November. Mariner 9 had two TV cameras which sent back 7,329 photos including close-ups of giant volcanoes, canyons and ancient riverbeds.

The Soviet Union in 1971 finally achieved success with Mars 2 and Mars 3, which transmitted data on the harsh atmosphere. The lander from Mars 2 crashed on the surface while the lander from Mars 3 became the first to make a successful soft landing on Mars. However, shortly after the Mars 3 lander touched down on December 2, 1971, it stopped communicating.
Mars 2 and Mars 3 were identical spacecraft – each an orbiter with attached descent module. They were supposed to send back images of the surface along with information about weather conditions, the composition of the atmosphere, and chemical and mechanical properties of the soil. Each had two television cameras, a mass spectrometer to study the atmosphere, and temperature, pressure, and wind sensors. Each had a mechanical scoop to search for organic signs of life.

Both Mars 2 and Mars 3 arrived in orbit over the Red Planet and dropped their descent modules, which were decorated with USSR flags. The descent modules had radar altimeters, cone-shaped aerodynamic braking shields, parachutes and retro-rockets. After landing, four triangular petals would open, turning the spacecraft upright and exposing the science instruments.

Each lander carried a small maneuverable robot called PROP-M. Each lander would use a manipulator arm to place its rover on the surface in the field of view of its television cameras. Each rover could slide along on a pair of skis, traveling up to 50 feet, while remaining attached to the lander by a tether cable. Each rover had a penetrometer and a radiation densitometer and would stop for measurements every five feet. Movements in the Martian soil would be recorded.

While Mars 2 crashed, Mars 3 made the first soft landing on Mars. After its descent module was separated from the orbiter, its descent engine fired. A braking parachute was deployed. Later, the main parachute popped out, the heat shield was ejected, and the radar altimeter was turned on. When the package was about 75-100 feet above the surface, the main parachute was cut loose and the retrorockets were fired. The entire entry and landing took about three minutes. It hit the ground at about 50 mph with its built-in shock absorbers preventing damage to the instruments.

The four petals covering the Mars 3 lander opened and, 90 seconds later, the capsule began transmitting to the Mars 3 orbiter. Unfortunately, the transmission stopped after only 20 seconds and no further signals were received. It wasn't possible to tell what failed – the lander or the orbiter's communications relay. One partial panoramic image was relayed to Earth, but it was dark with no detail. Could the dark picture have been caused by a powerful dust storm taking place around the landing site at the time?
The USSR tried to send four probes to Mars in 1973-74. Mars 4 and Mars 5 were intended for orbit around the planet. Mars 5 succeeded. Mars 6 was to land on Mars, but crashed. Mars 7 missed the planet.

Viking 1 and Viking 2 carried the American flag across millions of miles of interplanetary space to photograph Mars, Phobos and Deimos, and land on the Red Planet in 1976. The Vikings have been the most scientifically-profitable Martian operations to date.
  • Viking 1 launched September 9, 1975, arrived at Mars June 19, 1976, and landed.
  • Viking 2 launched August 20, 1975, arrived at Mars August 7, 1976, and landed.
Viking bio-tests turned up unusual chemical activity in the soil, but any finding of evidence of life remains controversial even today. At the time, the planet was said to be sterile.

The 1980s
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In 1988, the Soviet Union sent two probes to Mars. They were designed to explore the Sun while enroute, and then Mars and the Martian moon Phobos — the spacecraft were named Phobos 1 and Phobos 2.

A software glitch led to loss of contact with Phobos 1.

Phobos 2 carried the USSR flag 111 million miles to Mars orbit on January 29, 1989. It detected water vapor in the Martian atmosphere and sent back some photos. However, a computer problem ended the its mission before the spacecraft could send a robot probe to land on the moon Phobos.

The 1990s
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In 1993, after a Mars-launch hiatus of 18 years, the U.S. sent a new spacecraft — Mars Observer — to look in on the Red Planet. Unfortunately, it's signal was lost three days before it was to fly into orbit around Mars.

In 1996, America launched Mars Global Surveyor to map the Red Planet. MGS sent home more than 120,000 pictures along with data raising a possibility of water beneath the martian surface.

Meanwhile, Russia tried to send its Mars 96 probe, but the spacecraft splashed into the Pacific Ocean at launch.

The next year, America's Pathfinder landed on Mars. Millions of people on Earth watched as the lander sent out a rover named Sojourner for a close-up look at rocks and the terrain. Pathfinder sent back more than 20,000 images that made it seem Mars once might have been warm and wet.

Japan launched its Planet-B interplanetary probe on July 3, 1998, to look for signs of water on Mars and measure the Red Planet's magnetic field. In space, it was renamed Nozomi, which is Japanese for Hope. The spacecraft was Japan's first interplanetary mission. Previously, only the United States and Russia had sent spacecraft to Mars.

The U.S. suffered two setbacks from 1999 launches. Its Climate Orbiter was lost as it arrived at Mars. Then the signal from Polar Lander was lost when it was supposed to touch down near the south pole of the Red Planet.

The 2000s
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In 2001, the U.S. probe Mars Odyssey was sent to examine the composition of the Martian surface, to look for water and ice, and to study the radiation environment. In the process, it created the first large-scale geological map of the planet.

The European Space Agency launched its probe Mars Express on June 2, 2003, to fly into orbit around Mars in January 2004, and drop a lander named Beagle 2 to the surface.

Also in summer 2003, the U.S. sent two identical six-wheeled Mars Exploration Rovers – named Spirit and Opportunity – to land on the Martian surface.

Meanwhile, the first Japanese Mars orbiter, Planet B or Nozomi, continues on its 4.5 year voyage from Earth to the Red Planet.

The five craft – Mars Express with Beagle 2, Nozomi, and the twin Mars Exploration Rovers – will arrive in December 2003 and January 2004.

The New Era
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A new era of sophisticated robot interplanetary probes that may be launched from Earth by the United States, Europe, Japan, Russia and China in the 21st century will continue to teach us many new things about Mars and help us solve some old mysteries of the Solar System.

Table of Mars Flights
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Mars Probes at a Glance
1962 USSR Mars 1 radio contact lost
traveled 60 million miles
1964 USA Mariner 3 failed to achieve Mars trajectory
1964 USA Mariner 4 passed within 6200 miles 7/14/65
22 photos
1964 USSR Zond 2 passed Mars 1965
sent no data
1965 USSR Zond 3 enroute to Mars
flew within 5717 miles of Moon
sent 25 photos of far side of Moon
1969 USA Mariner 6 passed within 2100 miles of Mars 7/31/69
photographed equator, sent 100 photos
measured surface temperature
measured atmosphere pressure and composition
1969 USA Mariner 7 passed within 2200 miles of Mars 8/5/69
photographed southern hemisphere
and polar ice cap, 100 photos
measured surface temperature
atmosphere pressure and composition
1971 USA Mariner 8 launch failure
1971 USSR Mars 2 entered Mars orbit 11/71
studied surface and atmosphere
landing capsule crashed
1971 USSR Mars 3 entered Mars orbit 12/71
studied surface and atmosphere
lander successful
stopped transmitting 2 minutes after landing
1971 USA Mariner 9 orbited Mars 11/13/71
two TV cameras, sent 7329 photos
entire surface mapped
photos of Phobos and Deimos
studied atmosphere and surface temperature
saw violent planet-wide dust storm 9/71
spacecraft was turned off 10/72
1973 USSR Mars 4 braking rocket failed, craft overshot Mars 2/74
1973 USSR Mars 5 entered Mars orbit 2/74, snapped photos
quit working after few days
1973 USSR Mars 6 flew past Mars 3/74
dropped lander which crashed
1973 USSR Mars 7 flew past Mars 3/74
dropped lander which missed planet
1975 USA Viking 1 orbited Mars 1976
two TV cameras, 26,000 photos
lander parachuted to surface 7/20/76
weather station, seismometer, soil analyzer
seismometer failed
TV showed red rocky surface
dusty pink sky, sand dunes
no large life forms
soil mostly silicon and iron
temps 20 degrees to -120 degrees
winds 30 mph
lander worked 6.5 years on surface
1975 USA Viking 2 orbited Mars 1976
two TV cameras, 26,000 photos
lander parachuted to surface 9/3/76
weather station, seismometer and soil analyzer
found wind and minor marsquakes
red rocky surface, dusty pink sky, sand dunes
no large life forms
soil mostly silicon and iron
temps -20 degrees to -120 degrees
30 mph winds
lander worked 3.5 years on surface
1988 USSR Phobos 1 left Earth 7/7/88, traveled 12 million of
111 million-mile route to Mars
accidentally turned off by ground control 8/29/88
now aimless in solar orbit
1988 USSR Phobos 2 left Earth 7/12/88, arrived Mars 1/29/89
mapped planet, found water vapor in atmosphere
took photos of moon Phobos
radio contact lost 3/27/89
unable to drop hopping lander on Phobos 4/89
1992 USA Mars
launched 9/25/92, disappeared 8/21/93
three days before it was due to arrive at Mars
while preparing to brake to enter Mars orbit
1996 USA Mars
launched 11/7/96, arrived 9/12/97
mapping from 250 miles above Mars began 3/99
findings include signs of water under the surface
1996 Russia Mars 96 final stage failed in Earth orbit 11/17/96
failed to send craft on Mars trajectory
craft fell back to Earth
1996 USA Mars
launched 12/96, arrived 7/4/97, landed 7/4/97
very successful, highly popular Sojourner rover
Pathfinder worked until 9/27/97
Pathfinder returned 2.6 billion bits of information
including more than 16,000 lander images
550 Sojourner rover images
more than 15 chemical analyses of rocks
and data on winds and weather
1998 USA Mars
launched 12/11/98, arrived 9/23/99
lost as it entered orbit around Mars
due to a math error by engineers who mixed
metric measurements (newtons) with
English units (pounds) to measure
the strength of thruster firings
1998 Japan Nozomi
Planet B
launched 7/3/98, arrival 1/04
orbiter to study the planet's environment
first Japanese craft to reach another planet
1999 USA Mars
launched 1/3/99, arrived 12/3/99
contact with Earth lost after presumed landing
also lost Deep Space 2 pair of penetrators
that were to have separated from Polar Lander
to puncture the surface 35 miles away
2001 USA Mars
launched 4/7/01, arrived 10/24/01
to work in orbit through 8/04
mapping chemical elements and minerals
looking for hydrogen in subsurface water ice
relays communication for Mars landers
2003 ESA Mars
launched 6/2/03, arrival 1/04
Mars Express to study the planet from orbit and
drop Beagle 2 lander to explore the surface
2003 USA Mars
Rover A
to launch 6/03, arrival 1/04
to land and explore
2003 USA Mars
Rover B
to launch 6/03, arrival 1/04
to land and explore

Learn about future Mars probes
  • 2005 Orbiter
  • 2007 Scout
  • 2009 Smart Lander
  • 2014 Sample Return
  • 2024 Manned Flight

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NASA Mars History:
Rover Spirit 2003
Rover Opportunity 2003
Express 2003
Odyssey 2001
Polar Lander 1999
Climate Orbiter 1998
Deep Space 2 1999
Global Surveyor 1996
Pathfinder Lander 1996
Rover Sojourner 1996
Pathfinder Mission 1996
Viking-1 Lander 1975
Viking-2 Orbiter 1975
Viking-1 Lander 1975
Viking-1 Orbiter 1975
Mariner 9 Orbiter 1971
Mars 3 Lander 1971
Mariner 4 Flyby 1964
Viking Mission 1975
Mars Meteorites - JPL
Explorations Planned:
2003 & Beyond - Goddard
2005 & Beyond - JPL
Mars Exploration - JPL
Plans to Explore Planets

Solar System:
Solar System - JPL
Welcome to the Planets - JPL
Planetary Photojournal - JPL
Mars - Athena - NASA Ames
Solar System Tour - BBC
Mars - New York Times
Windows...Universe - UMich
Mars - Apollo Society
Planetary Society
Mars Society
The Nine Planets
Planet Mars Company
Solar System - STO
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Artist conception of Mars with water four billion years ago
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