Mars missions: Past, Present and Future

October 18, 2016 by Mariëtte Le Roux
It is known today that the hostile Martian surface is too radiation-blasted, cold and dry to host life as we know it on Earth

Long before the space age, Earthlings were already in hot pursuit of life on Mars, using primitive telescopes and even psychic mediums to seek evidence of sentient beings.

Long thought to be green-skinned creatures, and long referred to as "Martials", they were believed in the late 1800s to have built networks of irrigation canals—an inference from telescopic evidence of "straight lines" on the Red Planet's surface.

There were no lines. But early scientific blunders, aided by fictional accounts and tall tales of psychic encounters with creatures which spoke a language similar to French, helped create a long-lasting myth.

Modern science has dispelled such nonsense, and today we know the hostile Martian surface is too radiation-blasted, cold and dry to host life as we know it on Earth.

The search is still on, however, for single-celled organisms which may be lurking underground, "burping" methane—or for remains of life that may have existed some 3.5 billion years ago when Mars was a warmer place with liquid water.

An overview of successful Mars space missions:


1965: Following several failed attempts by the former Soviet Union, NASA's Mariner 4 completes the first successful flyby of Mars and takes photos, kicking off space exploration of the Red Planet.

This 1978 NASA image shows a color mosaic of the Olympus Mons volcano on Mars as captured by the Viking 1 Orbiter

1971: The former Soviet Union's Mars 2 and Mars 3 craft become the first to enter orbit—completing several loops.

A lander deployed by Mars 3 became the first craft in 1971 to make a soft Mars landing—though contact with the craft was lost after just seconds. The Mars 2 lander crashed into Mars, becoming the first human debris left on the Red Planet.

1971: NASA's Mariner 9 becomes the first US craft in Mars orbit.

1975-80: NASA's Viking 1 becomes the first succesful orbiter-lander combination fitted with experiments to search for Martian microbes.

1996-7: NASA's Mars Pathfinder delivers the first rover, dubbed Sojourner, to the surface. It was followed by rovers Spirit and Opportunity in 2003, and Curiosity in 2011.


India won Asia's race to Mars on September 24, 2014 when its unmanned Mangalyaan spacecraft successfully entered the Red Planet's orbit after a 10-month journey on a tiny budget

NASA: The American agency's Opportunity and Curiosity rovers still roam the Red Planet's surface today. It also has three orbiters: the Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and MAVEN.

EUROPEAN SPACE AGENCY: Europe's Mars Express has orbited the Red Planet since 2003. Its first attempt to place a European rover on the surface failed that same year.

INDIA: India placed its first working orbiter, named Mangalyaan, around Mars in 2014.


The Trace Gas Orbiter, part of a joint European-Russian mission called ExoMars, should enter a Mars loop on Wednesday, and start sniffing the planet's atmosphere in early 2018 for signs of life.

Its Schiaparelli test lander is also due to touch down Wednesday after a hairy six-minute atmosphere crossing designed to pave the way for a rover due for launch in 2020.

SpaceX chief Elon Musk plans to send an unmanned spaceship to Mars by 2018 as part of his quest to colonise the Red Planet with humans

China hopes to send an orbiter and rover to Mars around 2020.

More ambitiously: SpaceX chief Elon Musk plans to send an unmanned spaceship to Mars by 2018 as part of his quest to colonise the Red Planet with humans.

NASA wants to send people to Mars by the 2030s.

Dutch company Mars One, is weighing volunteers for a project to colonise the fourth rock from the sun—for the moment, return is not part of the plan.

Sources: NASA, European Space Agency

Explore further: NASA awards launch services contract for Mars 2020 rover mission

Related Stories

Robot explorers all set for Mars tryst: ESA

October 18, 2016

Europe was poised Tuesday to place a paddling pool-sized lander on Mars and a gas-sniffing craft in its orbit as part of a mission with Russia to scour the Red Planet for signs of life.

Mars explorer duo on course: ESA

October 17, 2016

European-Russian spacecraft were on course for Mars Monday after crucial deep-space manoeuvres in preparation for a daring mission to find evidence of life on the Red Planet.

Europe steers lander towards Mars surface

October 17, 2016

Europe sent a tiny lander on a three-day, million-kilometre (621,000-mile) trek to the Martian surface Sunday to test-drive technology for a daring mission to scout the Red Planet for evidence of life.

What does Earth look like from Mars?

October 3, 2016

Modern astronomy and space exploration has blessed us with a plethora of wonderful images. Whether they were images of distant planets, stars and galaxies taken by Earth-based telescopes, or close-ups of planets or moons ...

The problematic history of Martian landings

October 5, 2016

We may be living in the golden age of Mars exploration. With multiple orbiters around Mars and two functioning rovers on the surface of the red planet, our knowledge of Mars is growing at an unprecedented rate. But it hasn't ...

Recommended for you

Astronomers find a cosmic Titan in the early universe

October 17, 2018

An international team of astronomers has discovered a titanic structure in the early Universe, just two billion years after the Big Bang. This galaxy proto-supercluster, nicknamed Hyperion, is the largest and most massive ...

Researchers investigate the peculiar radio source IC 1531

October 17, 2018

An international team of researchers has investigated a peculiar extragalactic radio source known as IC 1531. The new study analyzes the nature of IC 1531's high-energy emission, suggesting that the source is a radio galaxy. ...

Double dust ring test could spot migrating planets

October 17, 2018

New research by a team led by an astrophysicist at the University of Warwick has a way of finally telling whether newly forming planets are migrating within the disc of dust and gas that typically surrounds stars or whether ...

Magnetic fields may be the key to black hole activity

October 17, 2018

Collimated jets provide astronomers with some of the most powerful evidence that a supermassive black hole lurks in the heart of most galaxies. Some of these black holes appear to be active, gobbling up material from their ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.