Our views from the red planet’s surface are more spectacular than ever.
Ever since the earliest spaceflight, humanity has reached for Mars.
This photo composite shows Meande Ring, a river on Mars, as captured by Mariner 9. Multiple orbiters, from both NASA and the Soviet Union, reached Mars starting in 1971. Mariner 9 mapped 85% of the Martian surface, becoming the first spacecraft to do so. But it would be much longer before we began exploring the Martian surface directly. (© CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
The Soviet Union’s
Mars 3, in 1971, almost succeeded.
The Soviet Union’s Mars 3 lander and Prop-M rover failed just 105 seconds after landing. This was the only image, from which no meaningful data has been extracted, returned by the spacecraft before humanity lost permanent contact with it in 1971. (ROSCOSMOS)
Prop-M rover failed 105 seconds after successful touchdown.
NASA’s Viking 1 and 2 arrived at Mars in 1976, with both the orbiters and landers succeeding. They became the first spacecraft to send back full-color photos of the red planet from its surface. (NASA / VIKING 1)
But in 1976, NASA’s
Viking 1 and 2 spacecraft arrived on Mars.
This was the first color image ever returned from the surface of Mars: from Viking 1 on July 21, 1976. This image shows the orange-red surface materials covering most of the surface, with a darker bedrock lying beneath it. This image shows the bottom of a large basin, which is previously thought to have been underwater at some point in Mars’s ancient past. (NASA / VIKING 1)
Landing in Chryse Planitia and Utopia Planitia, both missions succeeded.
Some ~4000 miles away from Viking 1, NASA’s Viking 2 showed a remarkably similar landscape to that seen by the Viking 1 lander. A soil sample was later taken from the region on the lower right. It would be decades before a human-powered spacecraft actually moved under its own power on Mars. (NASA / VIKING 2)
Viking 1 survived for 2307 days: a record later broken by
Although Viking 1 and Viking 2 sent back thousands of images and lots of high-quality scientific data, they were stationary and unable to move, severely restricting the amount of the Martian surface they could sample, image, and otherwise explore during their lifetimes on Mars. (NASA / VIKING 1)
No other landings succeeded until 1997: with
NASA’s Pathfinder mission.
One of the very first color images sent back by 1997’s Mars Pathfinder mission shows its rover, Sojourner, before its ramps had been determined safe to deploy. The distortions at the edges and bottom arise from the multiple cameras insufficiently stitching together their acquired data. (MARS PATHFINDER / NASA / NSSDCA / GSFC)
The attached rover,
Sojourner, operated for 83 days, vastly exceeding its planned 7-day lifetime.
View of the NASA Pathfinder Sojourner Rover exploring the surface terrain of Mars, 1997. The rover was photographed by the Pathfinder lander, while it gathered data from a nearby rock that was thought to be basaltic in nature. The data determined that the rock is, in fact, Martian basalt. (NASA/Getty Images)
Sojourner paved the way for NASA’s subsequent 2004 rovers:
Spirit and Opportunity.
This image was the first color photo returned by NASA’s Spirit rover from the surface of Mars in 2004. It immediately became the highest-resolution photo to be sent back from another planet, and shows a different, smoother terrain from what was previously revealed from both Vikings and the Pathfinder mission. (NASA/JPL)
Engineered for 90-day missions, they both outlasted all expectations.
One of the very first images taken by the Opportunity rover in 2004 as it leaves its landing site behind in Eagle crater. NASA’s Opportunity would go on to become the longest-running rover mission on the surface of another planet. (NASA/JPL)
After thousands of new discoveries, Opportunity ceased functioning after 5498 Earth days.
After a 14 year journey, more than 45 kilometers of travel, and a total of 228,771 raw images acquired, NASA’s Opportunity rover was lost to the effects of a vicious Martian dust storm: the one with the highest atmospheric opacity ever measured on Mars. (JAMES919 / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Mars Phoenix Lander discovered water-ice right beneath its own feet.
At left, this Phoenix panorama shows a tile-like structure in the Martian permafrost. At right, the soil scoop reveals water-ice just beneath the surface, which can be seen sublimating between the center (sol 20) and right (sol 24) images. (NASA / PHOENIX MISSION)
2012 saw the
Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, land on Mars.
This view shows the central 180 degrees of the first 360 degree color panorama taken on Mars by NASA’s Curiosity Rover. The highest part of Mount Sharp visible from Curiosity’s location is shown here, with components of the rover in the foreground. In short order, Curiosity would soon become famous for its “selfie” shots. (NASA/JPL-CALTECH/MSSS)
Curiosity’s successes informed the
Mars Perseverance Rover’s design.
This composite image looking toward the higher regions of Mount Sharp was taken on September 9, 2015, by NASA’s Curiosity rover. In the foreground, about 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the rover, is a long ridge teeming with hematite, an iron oxide. Just beyond is an undulating plain rich in clay minerals. And just beyond that are a multitude of rounded buttes, all high in sulfate minerals. The changing mineralogy in these layers of Mount Sharp suggests a changing, water-rich environment on early Mars. (NASA/JPL-CALTECH/MSSS)
In 2018, the
Insight mission landed on Mars: the red planet’s greatest seismometer.
This image, taken the day that NASA’s Insight mission landed on Mars in 2018, shows the view from the instrument deployment camera before the lander had taken those necessary steps. The terrain and skies of Mars should look familiar to anyone who’s seen previous images of the Martian surface. (NASA/JPL-CALTECH)
Perseverance’s 2021 touchdown, our scientific knowledge is poised to explode.
As new missions launch for Mars, they’re outfitted with better and more powerful instruments, cameras, and tools for exploration. From 142 individual images taken on just the third day of the mission (February 21, 2021), the Perseverance rover constructed this color, panoramic, 360-degree view of its landing site. At full-resolution, the mosaic is over 50 megabytes. (NASA/JPL-CALTECH/ASU/MSSS)
Ingenuity will deploy shortly: the first powered flight on another world.
This concept illustration shows NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter next to the Perseverance rover. The combination of a rover and a helicopter should allow for surface exploration and the identification of features-of-interest as never before. (NASA via Getty Images)
Tianwen-1 lander and ESA’s ExoMars mission will continue humanity’s Martian legacy.
On July 23, 2020, a Long March-5 rocket carried the Tianwen-1 mission into space. Destined for Mars, it consists of an orbiter, lander, and rover. As of March 7, 2021, the orbiter has been successfully deployed and is operational; the lander and rover will attempt to land and deploy on Mars in the next few months. ESA’s ExoMars will follow suit, likely in 2023. (Noel CELIS / AFP via Getty Images)
Mostly Mute Monday tells an astronomical story in images, visuals, and no more than 200 words. Talk less; smile more.
Starts With A Bang is written by Ethan Siegel , Ph.D., author of Beyond The Galaxy , and Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive .