Past Missions to Mars: An International Endeavour

Mars Polar Lander

Mars Polar Lander

(Credit: NASA)

Launch: January 3, 1999

Objectives: Mars Polar Lander is the first spacecraft with a mission to study the polar environment of another planet; it is to touch down close to the south-pole latitudes. It carries two scientific instruments and a lander. Just minutes prior to landing, Mission Control loses the signal for Mars Polar Lander. The two scientific instruments it carries, ejected during the descent to the Red Planet, are also missing.



Nozomi carried a Canadian instrument, the TPA (Credit: JAXA)

Launch: July 3, 1998

Objectives: The Japanese satellite Nozomi is launched as part of a mission to study the Martian atmosphere and its interaction with the solar wind. A Canadian scientific instrument, the Thermal Plasma Analyzer (TPA) designed at the University of Calgary, is among the payload instruments carried by Nozomi. However, the Nozomi mission fails—a result of a combination of unforeseen circumstances. The first difficulty occurs when the spacecraft uses too much fuel to leave Earth's orbit.

Mars Climate Orbiter

Mars Climate Orbiter

(Credit: NASA)

Launch: December 11, 1998

Objectives: Mars Climate Orbiter is the first interplanetary meteorological satellite. Its mission: to study the Martian atmosphere and climate. It is also a communication bridge for another American probe, Mars Polar Lander, which will be launched a few months later. Mars Climate Orbiter is notable in space history as the first Russian–U.S. Mars mission. Difficulties experienced by the satellite during its entry into orbit may explain its loss.

Mars Pathfinder

Mars Pathfinder

Sojourner, photographed by Mars Pathfinder during a manoeuvre that brought the mobile robot too close to a rock (Credit: NASA)

Mars Pathfinder

Mars Pathfinder, with its protective landing material (Credit: NASA)

Launch: December 5, 1996

Landing: July 4, 1997

Objectives: An important newcomer to the space age: Mars Pathfinder is the first lander to carry a small mobile exploration robot, Sojourner. The six-wheel rover, controlled from Earth, begins exploring the Martian soil on July 6, 1997, and returns data on the geology of the planet for nearly three months. The lander is equipped with a camera capable of photographing Sojourner while it explores the environment. Communication with Mars Pathfinder is lost on September 27 for unknown reasons, but the mission is a resounding success.

Mars 96

Mars 96

(Credit: NASA)

Launch: November 16, 1996

Objectives: Mars 96 is a Russian scientific mission of great importance in terms of the number of instruments aboard the orbiter. Some of these are: 12 instruments to study the surface of the planet, seven to study plasma fields, five for astrophysical studies, and two to dig the surface. Mars 96 weighs six tons! The probe, whose design is based on that of Phobos (launched in 1988), experiences power problems at launch and does not achieve insertion into Mars cruise trajectory. It crashes into the Pacific after circling the Earth three times, along with its valuable equipment.

Mars Global Surveyor

Mars global Surveyor

(Credit: NASA)

Launch: November 7, 1996

Objectives: Launched by NASA, Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) is designed to map the Martian surface from space. The orbiter has been able to confirm the presence of a magnetosphere around Mars and still today is sending back valuable data that allow scientists to better define the composition of the Martian atmosphere.

Mars Observer

mars observer

(Credit: NASA)

Mars observer

The best image taken by Mars Observer during its approach to the Red Planet (Credit: NASA)

Launch: September 25, 1992

Objectives: Mars Observer is the first of a series of NASA planetary missions intended to study the geology and climate of Mars. In August 1993, three days before scheduled Martian orbit insertion, contact with the probe is lost for reasons still not known. Several scenarios for what happened during the final moments of Mars Observer have been put forward, but none has been confirmed. The probe is now orbiting Mars or the Sun.

Phobos 1 and Phobos 2


(Credit: NASA)

Launch: July 7, 1988 and July 12, 1988, respectively

Objectives: Soviet probes Phobos 1 and 2 are developed to study Phobos, one of the Martian moons, which may be an asteroid captured by the planet's gravity field. Each probe has two landing units. Mid-journey, the guidance computer of Phobos 1 experiences problems interpreting commands which results in a depletion of the spacecraft's power reserve. Phobos 2 returns a number of interesting images of the Martian moon during its two months in orbit. However, an attempt to release its two landing units fails, depleting its fuel reserve.

Vikings 1 and 2 (orbiters w/landers)


This photo was taken by the Viking 1 Lander. (Credit: NASA)


  • Viking 1 orbiter: August 20, 1975
  • Viking 2 orbiter: September 9, 1975


  • Viking 1 lander: July 20, 1976
  • Viking 2 lander: September 3, 1976

Objectives: The American orbiters Viking 1 and 2 each have a lander aboard. Viking 1 is the first spacecraft to successfully land on Mars. The images reveal to the world a land of volcanoes, plains, immense canyons, craters, wind-formed features, and evidence of past surface water. Orbiters Viking 1 and Viking 2 provide a better understanding of the composition of the planet's core.

Mars Missions 4-7

Mars 7

Mars 6 and 7 (Credit: NASA)

Mars 4

Mars 4 and 5 (Credit: NASA)

Launch: July 21, 1973

Last entry into Mars' orbit: March 12, 1974

Objectives: Although the Soviet mission Mars 4 does not produce the expected results, it does return new data on the Red Planet, including the first on the night-side ionosphere of Mars. Rockets that were to slow Mars 4 on its approach to Mars do not fire and the spacecraft flies past its target at a range of 2,200 km. After the flyby, the probe continues to return data, orbiting the Sun.

Unlike its predecessor, Mars 5 successfully enters Mars orbit and returns more than 60 images to Earth over nine days. However, pressurization loss prevents the probe from continuing its mission.

The results of the Mars 6 mission, launched in the same year, are no better than those of Mars 4; radio communication with the lander is lost 224 seconds after it enters the Martian atmosphere. Despite its problems, this mission goes down in interplanetary exploration history because it returns the first data from the surface of Mars.

The Mars 7 orbiter misses its target when its lander separates from the orbiter four hours early, missing the planet by 1,300 km. The orbiter and lander now orbit the Sun.

Mariner 9

Mariner 9

Mariner 9 (Credit: NASA)

Launch: May 30, 1971

Objectives: NASA's Mariner 9 revolutionizes scientific theories about the geography of Mars; it was considered for a long time to be similar to our Moon, with craters and an environment hostile to forms of life. In early 1972, following a long dust storm, Mariner 9 reveals a geological universe completely different to that imaged in previous missions. The probe returns 7,329 photos during its mission, which ended on October 27, 1972. The spacecraft orbits the planet and is not expected to enter the Martian atmosphere before 2024.

Mars 2 and 3

Mars 2

Mars 3 (Credit: NASA)

Launch: May 19 and 28, 1971

Objectives: Identical probes, Mars 2 and Mars 3, are launched by the Soviets a few days apart. They are to return images of the surface and clouds of Mars, determine the planet's temperature, and record solar winds. Each orbiter is equipped with a lander. Although there are problems with the landers, the two orbiters return a significant amount of data until the end of their mission in 1972.

Cosmos 419

Launch: May 10, 1971

Objectives: The race between the Americans and Soviets heats up. Cosmos 419, a Soviet orbiter, tries to overtake the Mariner 8 probe, launched by the United States a day earlier. The spacecraft has onboard an instrument supplied by France that measures solar radiation. The spacecraft fails to function because of an error in the ignition-timer setting: it was programmed to start ignition 1.5 years after orbit, rather than 1.5 hours. Cosmos 419 re-enters the atmosphere a few days later.

Mariner 8

Mariner 9

(Credit: NASA)

Launch: May 9, 1971

Objectives: Mariner 8, successor to Mariner 3 (1964), re-enters Earth's atmosphere shortly after launch as a result of launch problems. The probe falls into the Atlantic Ocean, 560 km north of Puerto Rico. Its mission was to orbit Mars and return images.

Mars-69 521 and 522


(Credit: NASA)

Launch: March 27 and April 2, 1969

Objectives: Mars-69 521 and 522 are two Soviet orbiters which, upon reaching Mars, would deploy a landing unit to the planet's surface to photograph its environment. Unfortunately, both probes explode at launch, within a month of each other. This is the first attempt by the Soviets at using proton rockets.

Mariner 6 and 7


These pictures of Mars were taken by Mariner 7 in 1969 on approach to the Red Planet. The circular feature in the upper-centre of the sphere is a 25-km high volcano. In 1969, it was believed that it was a meteorite impact crater. (Credit: NASA)

Mariner 6

Mariner 6 (Credit: NASA)

Launch: February 24 and March 27, 1969

Objectives: Mariner 6 and 7 are NASA's second twin Mariner probes. These missions make it possible to examine the components of the Martian atmosphere and determine research parameters for extraterrestrial life. Mariner 6 and 7 return hundreds of images of Mars, including images of canals that for a long time were thought to have been developed by extraterrestrials. The new images from Mariner 6 and 7 show that these are natural geological structures.

Zond 2

Launch: November 30, 1964

Objectives: Zond 2 is a Soviet orbiter with a variety of scientific instruments. After its launch, two solar panels fail to function. Although the setback does not put an end to the mission, problems persist for the probe: at mid-mission, communication is lost. Zond 2 continues its course after having flown by Mars.

Mariner 4


First close-up image of Mars, taken by Mariner 4. (Credit: NASA)


(Credit: NASA)

Launch: November 28, 1964

Objectives: On July 14, 1965, Mariner 4 succeeds in photographing Mars, returning the first close-up image of another planet. A total of 21 images are returned to Earth. The probe then studies Mars's cosmic environment. The Mariner 4 mission is terminated in 1967 because of damage resulting from a micro-meteor shower.

Mariner 3

Launch: November 5, 1964

Objectives: The United States joins the race to Mars with Mariner 3. The probe is one of a series of spacecraft intended to fly by the Red Planet, photograph it and study its environment. A malfunction at launch prevents the probe from separating from the launch vehicle and Mariner 3 cannot be put into its trajectory to Mars.

Sputnik 24

Launch: November 4, 1962

Objectives: The ambitious Sputnik 24 is the first lander ever designed. But the USSR's attempt to manoeuvre it onto the proper trajectory fails and the spacecraft is lost. The Ballistics Missile Early Warning System in the U.S. identifies spacecraft debris in the Earth's atmosphere.

Mars 1

Launch: November 1, 1962

Objectives: The mission of the Russian probe Mars 1 is to fly by the Red Planet to capture images of its surface and transmit data on its atmospheric structure and cosmic rays. Halfway through the journey, communication with Mars 1 is lost. The probe now orbits the Sun.

Sputnik 22

Launch: October 24, 1962

Objectives: Sputnik 22, launched during the Cuban missile crisis, causes some concern in the U.S. The probe, intended to fly by the Red Planet and capture images of it, explodes as it goes into Earth orbit. Debris from the spacecraft remains in Earth orbit for a few days and decays in the atmosphere.

Marsnik 2

Launch: October 10, 1960

Objectives: Marsnik 2 is launched four days after its twin and is just as secret a mission. But the probe disintegrates as it leaves Earth's atmosphere.

Marsnik 1


(Credit: NASA)

Launch: October 10, 1960

Objectives: The launch of Marsnik 1 takes the whole world by surprise, especially the United States. The space probe, secretly launched by the USSR, is designed to investigate interplanetary space and the long-term effects of a long voyage on spacecraft instruments.