US/NASA MARS MISSIONS

Gail Roberts

Why is the exploration of Mars so important?

There are four main goals of the exploration of Mars:


  1. To determine if life ever arose on Mars.
  2. To characterize the climate of Mars.
  3. To characterize the Geology of Mars.
  4. To prepare for human exploration of Mars.

What drives the exploration of Mars?

The Mars Exploration Program is a science-driven program that seeks to understand whether Mars was, is, or can be, a habitable world. To find out, we need to understand how geologic, climatic, and other processes have worked to shape Mars and its environment over time, as well as how they interact today

What is the strategy for Mars exploration?

To discover the possibilities for life on Mars--past, present or our own in the future--the Mars Program has developed an exploration strategy known as "Follow the Water." Following the water begins with an understanding of the current environment on Mars. NASA wants to explore observed features like dry riverbeds, ice in the polar caps and rock types that only form when water is present. They want to look for hot springs, hydrothermal vents or subsurface water reserves. NASA wants to understand if ancient Mars once held a vast ocean in the northern hemisphere as some scientists believe and how Mars may have transitioned from a more watery environment to the dry and dusty climate it has today. Searching for these answers means delving into the planet's geologic and climate history to find out how, when and why Mars underwent dramatic changes to become the forbidding, yet promising, planet we observe today.

Past Mars Missions

Mariner 3: launched Nov. 5, 1964

Mariner 4: launched Nov. 28, 1964

Mariner 3 and 4 were identical spacecraft designed to carry out the first flybys of Mars. Mariner 3 did NOT make it to Mars; the shroud encasing the spacecraft atop its rocket failed to open. Mariner 4 was launched successfully and went on an eight month voyage to the red planet.


Mariner 6: launch Feb. 24, 1969

Mariner 7: launch Mar. 27, 1969

Mariner 6 and Mariner 7 completed the first dual mission to Mars, flying by over the equator and south polar regions and analyzing the Martian atmosphere and surface with remote sensors, as well as recording and relaying hundreds of pictures.


Mariner 8: launch May 8, 1971

Mariner 9: launch May 30, 1971; arrival: Nov. 13, 1971

Mariner 8 and 9 were the third and final pair of Mars missions in NASA's Mariner series of the 1960s and early 1970s. Unfortunately, Mariner 8 failed during launch on May 8, 1971. Mariner 9 was launched successfully on May 30, 1971, and became the first artificial satellite of Mars when it arrived and went into orbit.


Viking 1: launch Aug. 20, 1975; arrival: Jun. 19, 1976

Viking 2: launch Sept. 9, 1975; arrival: Aug. 7, 1976

NASA's Viking Project found a place in history when it became the first mission to land a spacecraft safely on the surface of another planet. Two identical spacecraft, each consisting of a lander and an orbiter, were built. Each orbiter-lander pair flew together and entered Mars orbit; the landers then separated and descended to the planet's surface.


Mars Observer: launch Sept. 25, 1992

After a 17-year gap since its last mission to the red planet, the United States launched Mars Observer on September 25, 1992. The spacecraft was based on a commercial Earth-orbiting communications satellite that had been converted into an orbiter for Mars. The payload of science instruments was designed to study the geology, geophysics and climate of Mars. The mission ended with disappointment on August 22, 1993, when contact was lost with the spacecraft shortly before it was to enter orbit around Mars. Science instruments from Mars Observer are being re-flown on two other orbiters, Mars Global Surveyor and 2001 Mars Odyssey.


Mars Pathfinder: launch Dec. 4, 1996

Mars Pathfinder consisting of a lander and the Sojourner rover, returned an unprecedented amount of data as they explored an ancient flood plain in Mars' northern hemisphere known as Ares Vallis.


Mars Climate Orbiter: launch Dec. 11, 1998

Mars Climate Orbiter was designed to function as an interplanetary weather satellite and a communications relay for Mars Polar Lander. The orbiter carried two science instruments: a copy of an atmospheric sounder on the Mars Observer spacecraft lost in 1993, and a new, lightweight color imager combining wide- and medium-angle cameras. Mars Climate Orbiter was lost on arrival September 23, 1999. Engineers concluded that the spacecraft entered the planet's atmosphere too low and probably burned up.


Mars Polar Lander/Deep Space 2: launch Jan. 3, 1999

Mars Polar Lander was an ambitious mission to set a spacecraft down on the frigid terrain near the edge of Mars' south polar cap and dig for water ice with a robotic arm. Piggybacking on the lander were two small probes called Deep Space 2 designed to impact the Martian surface to test new technologies. Mars Polar Lander and Deep Space 2 were lost at arrival December 3, 1999.


Mars Global Surveyor: launch Nov. 7, 1996; arrival Sept. 12, 1997

Mars Global Surveyor operated longer at Mars than any other spacecraft in history, and for more than four times as long as the prime mission originally planned. The spacecraft returned detailed information that has overhauled understanding about Mars


Phoenix: launch Aug. 4, 2007; arrival May 25, 2008

The Phoenix Mars Lander successfully landed on the north polar region of Mars. Its mission is to dig up and analyze icy soil. The mission is the first chosen for NASA's Scout program, an initiative for smaller, lower-cost, competed spacecraft. Named for the resilient mythological bird, Phoenix uses a lander that was intended for use by 2001's Mars Surveyor lander prior to its cancellation. It also carries a complex suite of instruments that are improved variations of those that flew on the lost Mars Polar Lander.

Current Mars Space Missions

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter: launched Aug. 12, 2005; arrival Mar. 10, 2006

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is capturing unique views of Mars with the most powerful telescopic camera ever compared to other planets. Its 5 other scientific instruments are collecting data about the Red Planet.


Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity):

Spirit: launch Jun. 10, 2003; landing Jan. 3, 2004

Opportunity: launch Jun. 7, 2003; landing Jan. 24, 2004

Two powerful Mars rovers are on the red planet. They have far greater mobility than the 1997 Mars Pathfinder rover. Each rover carries a sophisticated set of instruments to search for evidence of liquid water that may have been present in the planet's past. The rovers are identical to each other, but are exploring different regions of Mars.


Mars Express: launch Jun. 2, 2003; arrival in Dec. 2003

NASA is participating in Mars Express, a mission planned by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency. The mission is exploring the atmosphere and surface of Mars from polar orbit.


Mars Odyssey: launch Apr. 7, 2001; arrival Oct. 24, 2001

2001 Mars Odyssey is an orbiting spacecraft designed to determine the composition of the planet's surface, to detect water and shallow buried ice, and to study the radiation environment.


Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity): launch: Nov. 26, 2011; landing: Aug. 6, 2012

Building on the success of the two rover geologists that arrived at Mars in January 2004, the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, will assess whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms called microbes. In other words, its mission is to determine the planet's "habitability." Twice as long and three times as heavy as the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity will collect martian soil samples and rocks and analyze them for organic compounds and environmental conditions that could have supported microbial life now or in the past.


Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN):

launch Nov. 18, 2013; landing Sept. 21, 2014

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft will provide information about the Red Planet's atmosphere, climate history and potential habitability in greater detail than ever before. MAVEN - based on designs from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and 2001 Mars Odyssey missions - will make definitive scientific measurements of present-day atmospheric loss that will offer clues about the planet's history.

Fail Mars Missions

  • Mariner 3
  • Mariner 4
  • Mariner 5
  • Mariner 6
  • Mariner 7
  • Mariner 8
  • Mars Observer
  • Mars Pathfinder
  • Mars Climate Orbiter
  • Mars Polar Lander/Deep Space 2

Are there any future missions being looked at?

To pursue these goals, all of NASA's future missions will be driven by rigorous scientific questions that will continuously evolve as we make new discoveries. Brand new technologies will enable us to explore Mars in ways we never have before, resulting in higher-resolution images, precision landings, longer-ranging surface mobility and even the return of Martian soil and rock samples for studies in laboratories here on Earth.
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