Probes that have made it to Mars as Nasa’s Perseverance attempts tricky landing

Nilima Marshall, PA Science Reporter
·6-min read

Mars is not a friendly place when it comes to landing spacecraft.

On Thursday, Nasa’s Perseverance rover will go through “seven minutes of terror” as it attempts to land on the Martian surface at 8.45pm UK time as part of a 2.7 billion US dollar (£1.9 billion) mission.

There have been 19 landing attempts on the red planet, but only eight have been successful – all of them American.

Here are the landers and rovers that have successfully made it to Mars:

1. Viking 1 (lander) – 1976

The first successful landing on Mars came in July 1976, when Nasa’s Viking 1 touched down on Chryse Planitia (The Plains of Gold).

This lander was part of the space agency’s Viking programme, which consisted of another spacecraft, Viking 2.

As well as taking photographs and collecting science data on the Martian surface, Viking 1 also carried out three biology experiments designed to look for possible signs of life.

According to Nasa, these experiments discovered unexpected and enigmatic chemical activity in the Martian soil, but provided no clear evidence for the presence of living micro-organisms in soil near the landing sites.

Viking 1 held the record for the longest Mars surface mission, continuing its work for more than six years until it was broken by the Opportunity rover in 2010.

2. Viking 2 (lander) – 1976

Hot on the heels of Viking 1’s success, Nasa landed on Mars again in September 1976 with Viking 2.

The sister ship touched down on the plains of Utopia Planitia, where it took photos and – like its predecessor – found sterile soil that did not show clear evidence of microbial life.

The lander shut down in 1980 after its batteries failed.

3. Pathfinder (lander) – 1997

Pathfinder landed on Mars’s Ares Vallis in July 1997, carrying a six-wheeled robotic rover named Sojourner.

It was the first successful lander since the two Vikings touched down in 1976.

Pathfinder’s mission was to prove that the development of “faster, better and cheaper” spacecraft was possible and that it was also viable to send lots of scientific instruments to another planet with a simple system.

Sojourner was the first wheeled vehicle to be used on any planet.

The pair collected data on Mars’s geological, soil, magnetic and atmospheric properties.

Nasa’s final contact with Pathfinder was in September 1997 and, in 2003, Sojourner was inducted into the Robot Hall of Fame.

4. Spirit (rover) – 2004

This robotic space explorer landed within the impact crater Gusev on Mars in January 2004 as part of Nasa’s Mars Exploration Rover mission.

Along with its twin, the Opportunity rover, Spirit’s key role was to study the history of climate and water at areas on the red planet where conditions may once have been favourable to life.

The spacecraft continued working for more than six years – far beyond its initial 90-day mission – and stopped communicating with Nasa in 2011 following a global dust storm on Mars.

5. Opportunity (rover) – 2004

Opportunity landed on the other side of Mars – on the flat plains of Meridiani Planum – nearly three weeks after its twin.

It was the first rover to identify and characterise sedimentary rocks on a planet other than Earth.

Opportunity discovered small spheres of a compound known as hematite (nicknamed blueberries), and found white veins of the mineral gypsum at the Endeavour crater – a tell-tale sign of water that once travelled through underground fractures.

Opportunity worked longer on the surface of Mars than any other robot – more than 14 years. It ceased communications in 2018 following a planetary dust storm.

Both Spirit and Opportunity took thousands of pictures of Mars, returning more than 342,000 raw images.

6. Phoenix (lander) – 2008

A robotic spacecraft, Phoenix touched down in May 2008 research the history of water on Mars.

The lander dug, scooped, baked, sniffed and tasted the Red Planet’s soil, according to Nasa.

It verified the presence of water-ice in the Martian subsurface, which Nasa’s Mars Odyssey orbiter first detected remotely in 2002.

The mission lasted about seven months – its solar power dropped upon the arrival of the Martian winter.

7. Curiosity (rover) – 2012

This car-sized rover was designed to explore the red planet’s Gale crater as part of Nasa’s Mars Science Laboratory mission.

Even though it landed nearly nine years ago, the mission still remains active.

Curiosity has a wide range of achievements under its belt – including finding evidence of persistent liquid water in the past; measuring methane at the surface; and detecting sulphur, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon, which are key ingredients necessary for life.

The rover’s design – and some of its instruments – have been adapted for the Perseverance mission.

8. InSight (lander) – 2018

This Nasa spacecraft landed in November 2018 and is the only active lander in operation on the red planet (excluding the Curiosity rover).

Its aim was to shine new light on how Mars was formed and its deep structure, by mapping its core, crust and mantle.

The mission has measured numerous marsquakes and continues to gather data to better understand the formation of Mars and other rocky planets.