Reaching Mars is a hard and unforgiving endeavor, with little room for error. A large proportion of the 50-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.
Landing missions are especially tricky to the long time delay between Mars and Earth communications, the thin Martian atmosphere, and the fact that spacecraft and their components must survive several months in space before making it to the surface. We have been very lucky with many landing missions, but not all of them made them down.
Related: Mars, the spacecraft graveyard
Here’s a look at the best (and worst) Mars landings of all time:
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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, and the mission was declared over in 2019.
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
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.
Overcoming ‘seven minutes of terror’
NASA’s flagship Curiosity rover finished a never-before-executed complex landing sequence on Aug. 6, 2012, flawlessly stepping through parachute deployment and a “sky crane” deployment to settle into the surface in Gale Crater.
The mission still remains highly active in early 2021 and has a lot of milestones under its belt. These include finding abundant evidence of water and water-formed rocks, measuring methane at the surface, detecting different types of organics, and continuing to climb a Martian mountain called Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons). The rover’s design (and some of its instruments) have been adapted for the Perseverance rover mission, which is expected to land on Feb. 18, 2021.
So long, Schiaparelli
The European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander, part of the ExoMars mission to Mars, launched to the Red Planet on March 14, 2016.
The Schiaparelli landing demonstrator for the European Space Agency was supposed to prepare for later work in the ExoMars exploration program. Conflicting data on the onboard computer, however, caused Schiaparelli to crash during landing on March 14, 2016. It spun rapidly (and unexpectedly) during descent, slamming into the surface so fast the the black scar left behind was visible from orbit in high-definition NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter pictures.
Probing the Martian interior
NASA’s InSight Mars landing took place on Nov. 26, 2018, allowing the first spacecraft devoted to probing the Red Planet interior to begin its work. The mission has measured numerous marsquakes and continues to gather data to better understand the formation of Mars and other rocky planets.
The only major failure of the mission was a “mole” or heat probe that was designed to move under the surface; harder than expected regolith frustrated more than two Earth years of efforts to dig more than a few inches. NASA abandoned the attempt in early 2021, but the mission has been approved for an extended mission as long as its power reserves last.
Upcoming Mars landings
The story of landing on Mars is not complete.
NASA’s Perseverance rover is gearing up for a landing on Feb. 18, and China’s Tianwen-1 mission, which arrived in Mars orbit in February 2021, is expected to deploy a rover to the Martian surface in mid-2021.
In 2022, the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos agency will launch the ExoMars rover Rosalind Franklin. That rover, originally scheduled to launch in 2020, was delayed due to technical issues.
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