The best (and worst) Mars landings of all time

The best (and worst) Mars landings of all time

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  • A photo of Mars from NASA's Viking spacecraft, which launched in 1975.

    The Viking Project/NASA

    Reaching Mars is a hard and unforgiving endeavor, with little room for error. More than two-thirds of the 40-odd missions launched toward Mars have been lost due to failed components, rocket glitches or grievous errors that sent probes crashing into the Martian surface or missing the planet altogether.

    Here’s a look at the best (and worst) Mars landings of all time. 

    Related: Long-Silent Mars Lander Appears to Be Officially Lost

    First on Mars

    Mars 2, a lander built by the former Soviet Union, has the double-edged distinction of being the first human-built object ever to touch down on the red planet. Launched in tandem with its sister craft Mars 3 in 1970, the spherical 1-ton Mars 2 lander was

    NASA

    Mars 2, a lander built by the former Soviet Union, has the double-edged distinction of being the first human-built object ever to touch down on the Red Planet. Launched in tandem with its sister craft Mars 3 in 1970, the spherical 1-ton Mars 2 lander was about the size of a kitchen stove and designed to parachute to the Martian surface and use rockets for final braking.

    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.

    20 Seconds, then silence

    NASA

    NASA

    Like its sister craft Mars 2, the Soviet Union’s Mars 3 landing mission is a combination of engineering accomplishment and inexplicable failure. The lander appears as the conical top of the Mars 3 orbiter mothership in this image.

    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 predecessor Mars 2. But 20 seconds after beginning its first photographic scan, Mars 3’s TV signal went silent for good.

    Beagle 2 gets lost

    Beagle 2 Project

    Beagle 2 Project

    On Christmas Day 2003, the British-built Beagle 2 lander plummeted through the Martian atmosphere with the hopes of Europe on its tail, only to vanish without a trace.

    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.

    Mars Polar Lander

    NASA/JPL

    NASA/JPL

    British and Russian researchers weren’t the only ones to send space probes to Mars only to have them fail at the end. NASA’s Mars Polar Lander, launched in January 1999, crashed just before landing near the planet’s south pole in December of that year due to an engineering flaw.

    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.

    The Viking success

    NASA

    NASA

    The first successful landing on Mars came on July 20, 1976, when NASA’s Viking 1 lander touched down in Chryse Planitia (The Plains of Golf). The massive 1,270-lb (576-kilogram) lander dropped from an orbiting mothership to make a three-point landing using a parachute and rocket engine.

    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.

    Viking’s second invasion

    Mars Microbes Could Survive with Natural Antifreeze

    NASA/JPL/Malin Space Sciences System

    Soon after Viking 1’s success, NASA landed on Mars again on Sept. 3, 1976 with Viking 2.

    The sister ship to Viking 1, Viking 2 touched 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.

    Red Planet roving

    NASA/JPL

    NASA/JPL

    On July 4, 1997, NASA celebrated U.S. Independence Day in style by landing the first mobile probe on the Red Planet.

    The Mars Pathfinder Lander used a parachute and airbags to land on Mars and then deployed Sojourner — a small, six-wheeled rover the size of a microwave oven that explored nearby terrain. A total success, the mission ended with a final transmission on Sept. 27, 1997.

    Spirit’s big bounce

    NASA/JPL/Cornell

    NASA/JPL/Cornell

    The success of Mars Pathfinder and its Sojourner rover led to a larger, bolder Mars landing on Jan. 4, 2004, when NASA’s golf cart-sized Spirit rover bounced to a stop inside the broad Gusev Crater.

    Spirit spent more than six years — far beyond its initial 90-day mission — exploring Mars before going silent in March 2010.

    Opportunity knocks, history answers

    NASA/JPL

    NASA/JPL

    The twin of NASA’s Spirit rover, the robotic explorer Opportunity, landed Jan. 25, 2004 and, while it was only expected to last 90 days on the Red Planet’s surface, the rover ended up lasting 5,111. The rover stopped communicating with NASA following a global dust storm on Mars.

    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. 

    Rising from the ashes

    NASA/Corby Waste

    NASA/Corby Waste

    The Phoenix lander touched down on May 25, 2008 and used some spare instruments and equipment salvaged from the lost Mars Polar Lander project.

    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 on-board 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.

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