Since 1960 we've been attempting to explore the red planet, and along the way there have been countless failures and lost spacecraft that attest to just how hard it is to fly those 35 million miles from here to there. However, there have also been success stories, like the twin rovers Opportunity and Spirit, who have both overcome mechanical problems, braved dust storms, and sent back enormous amounts of data. Today, after being threatened with a shutdown due to budget cuts, the Martian rovers got a reprieve. They'll be rolling along for many months to come. To celebrate, check out our list of Martian robots and landers who have already served their robotic duty as our slaves, erm we mean allies, on the red planet.
- The first five missions to Mars were all Soviet flyby attempts, and all of them failed for reasons ranging from "radio failure" to "spacecraft broke apart." Still, it's impressive that they managed so many attempts within only two years in the early 60s.
- The first US mission was also a failure when Mariner 3's shroud failed to jettison, leaving it without solar power. It remains to this day in a solar orbit. Mariner 4 ended up being the first successful mission to Mars in 1964 when it was able to return 21 images from a flyby. The ship continued operation until late 1967, when it ran into a micrometeoroid storm which caused severe alterations in trajectory and communications. It was lost forever in December of 1967.
- We weren't able to orbit the planet for seven more years until Mariner 9 became the first satellite to successfully orbit the planet, barely beating the Soviets by a couple of months. The spacecraft used up its supply of fuel for adjusting trajectory, and was turned off a year later in 1972. Surprisingly, the satellite remains in a steady orbit around the planet, at least until 2022 when it should plunge into the atmosphere.
- Numerous attempts at flybys and orbit resulted in both Soviet and US satellites exploding on launch, crashing back to Earth, or heading deep into the Atlantic Ocean. It would be a bit spooky encountering the remains of Mariner 8 in murky waters off the coast of Puerto Rico.
- However, not being content to just fly past the planet or orbit it and send back images, plans were made to begin landing objects on Mars that could send data back to us. The Soviet Mars 2 achieved orbit back in 1971, but the Lander portion of the mission didn't go quite so well, and it crashed onto the surface of the planet. However, it has the dubious distinction of being the first manmade object to reach the surface of Mars.
- The US Viking MIssions to Mars were some of the most successful Mars explorations ever launched. Viking I was launched in 1975, and after a 10 month journey to the red planet, it was successfully inserted into orbit. Then on July 20th 1976, the Viking Lander was launched from the ship, and landed on the planet and continued to operate for over six years. It was accidentally deactivated in 1982 when ground control sent a faulty command that caused the Lander to overwrite its own antenna pointing software, and all contact was lost. It still sits, alone and waiting, on the surface of the planet.
- Viking 2 was launched a few months after Viking I, but its batteries failed early, and it was shut off in 1980. It's harder to think of a more lonely image than the two Viking Landers sitting abandoned on the face of Mars.
- The Soviet Union tried again to launch Mars missions in the late 1980s, still stinging from the general failure of their Marsnik program from the 1960s, and the Mars program of the 1970s. However, both Phobos 1 and Phobos 2 suffered critical failures. Phobos 2 was lost when its transmitter failed to turn back on (it was shut off when the spacecraft was taking photos), and Phobos 1 was lost when a command sent from Earth left out a single character and caused the ship to go into a spin from which it never recovered.
- The United States decided to return to Mars in 1992 with the Mars Observer. However, that ship was lost just three days before it was to be inserted into Mars orbit, and no one knows what happened to it. Theories state that there was an explosion in a propellant line, although we'll never know for sure.
- The Russians tried again in 1996 with Mars 96, a ship based on the Phobos designs, but it failed to exit the Earth's atmosphere, and the ship crashed off the coast of Chile.
- The US also decided to try again that same year with the Mars Global Surveyor which successfully orbited the planet and returned images for ten years. In 2006 it was determined that the vehicle had gone into "safe mode," and NASA officially ended the mission in January of last year.
- NASA also had much success with the launch of the Mars Pathfinder, and its Sojourner Rover, which became the first Martian Rover. It was able to transmit 16,500 images in three months, although we lost contact with it in 1997, and NASA officially shut it down in 1998. Interesting fact: the landing zone for the Pathfinder was designated the Carl Sagan Memorial Station, in honor of the man who said beelyuns, a billion times.
- Japan decided to get into the race for the red planet in 1998 with the launch of Nozomi (Japanese for "Hope"), although it failed to achieve the proper trajectory, used too much fuel, and was damaged by severe solar flares. Although the ship didn't achieve its mission, it remains operational in solar orbit.
- One of NASA's most massive failures came in 1998 when it launched the Mars Climate Orbiter. This was the famous ship that burned up in the Martian atmosphere, due to the fact that a technician at Lockheed Martin had used Imperial measurements instead of the Metric system. Ouch.
- NASA launched the Mars Polar Lander a year later, and it suffered a severe failure moments before landing on the planet. Although it supposedly crashed to the surface, attempts to locate wreckage have failed, and it remains lost. Spooky, eh?
- NASA also tried to launch two probes in the Deep Space 2 mission in 1999 that would penetrate the surface of Mars, but they were never heard from once they slammed into the surface. Nothing like angering the red planet, is there?
- In 2001 NASA launched the 2001 Mars Odyssey, named after 2001, A Space Odyssey, and it remains in action to this day, with its current mission extended to September of this year.
- In 2003 NASA launched the Mars Exploration Rovers Opportunity and Spirit within a month of each other, and they both remain in operation to this day. In fact, Spirit was just narrowly saved from being shut off. Last summer, both rovers endured dust storms on the planet that blacked out the sky and nearly forced them to run out of power due to their separation from the sun, but they both lived through it.
- The European Space Agency also launched the Mars Express in 2003, which was a mission in two parts: the Mars Express Orbiter, which is still in use today, and the Beagle 2. The Beagle 2 was an ambitious lander that failed to make contact after it was supposed to land on the planet, and was declared lost in 2004.
- NASA launched the Phoenix last August, as part of the Mars Scout Program, and it is due to touch down on Mars in May of this year. It'll use a robotic arm to dig into the polar terrain, and try to find out the mystery of Martian water. Namely: where the hell did it all go?
- There are many more Mars missions planned for the next two decades, including another NASA rover, this one three times bigger than Spirit or Opportunity, and another try by the Russian Phobos design team, the first since 1996. No one can resist the pull of Mars.