As the space race to the red planet heats up and private companies aim to mine and colonize it, we take a look back on the factual history of humans and Mars.
There have been eight successful US Mars landings: Viking 1 and Viking 2 (both 1976), Pathfinder (1997), Spirit and Opportunity (both 2004), Phoenix (2008), Curiosity (2012) and InSight (2018).
The only other country to land a spacecraft on Mars was the Soviet Union in 1971 and 1973.
The United States, the Soviet Union, the European Space Agency and India have successfully sent spacecraft to enter Mars’ orbit.
1965 – Mariner 4 passes within 6,000 miles (about 9,650 kilometers) of Mars and takes the first close-up photos of the planet’s surface.
1969 – Mariners 6 and 7 pass within about 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) of the planet and transmit information about the planet’s surface and atmosphere.
November 3, 1971 – Mariner 9 launches. It reaches orbit on November 24, becoming the first US spacecraft to orbit a planet other than Earth.
December 2, 1971 – The USSR’s Mars 3 lander makes the first successful landing on the planet’s surface. It transmits data for 20 seconds before failing.
July and August 1973 – The USSR successfully launches Mars 4, 5, 6 and 7. Each spacecraft takes about seven months to reach the planet’s orbit. Only Mars 6 lands.
1975 – Viking 1 and Viking 2 are launched.
July 20, 1976 – Viking 1’s lander reaches the surface of Mars.
September 3, 1976 – Viking 2’s lander reaches Mars.
September 25, 1992 – The United States launches the Mars Observer. Contact is permanently lost in August 1993.
November 1996 – The Mars Global Surveyor is launched. It reaches Mars in September 1997 and begins its orbit. It is last heard from on November 2, 2006.
July 4, 1997 – The Mars Pathfinder, after six months of travel, lands on Mars. For four months the rover Sojourner explores the planet’s surface and returns photos to Earth.
December 11, 1998 – The Mars Climate Orbiter is launched, but is lost upon arrival in September 1999.
January 3, 1999 – The Mars Polar Lander is launched. On December 3, it fails to make contact with ground control. NASA believes the lander was destroyed upon impact with Mars.
April 7, 2001 – The Mars Odyssey Orbiter is launched, and reaches Mars on October 24.
June 2, 2003 – The European Space Agency launches the Mars Express Orbiter and the Beagle 2 lander. The Beagle 2 is scheduled to land on Mars on December 25, 2003, but never makes contact. The Mars Express Orbiter is successfully guided on to an orbit around the Red Planet, where it will study Mars for two years.
June 10, 2003 – The rover nicknamed Spirit is launched.
July 7, 2003 – The rover nicknamed Opportunity is launched from Cape Canaveral. Both Spirit and Opportunity are part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Mission.
January 3, 2004 – At approximately 11:35 p.m. ET, Spirit lands on Mars and immediately starts to send back pictures from the surface.
January 15, 2004 – The Mars rover Spirit rolls off its lander and begins the next phase of its mission to study the rocks and soil of the Martian surface for signs of water.
January 24-25, 2004 – The rover Opportunity lands on Mars. (Sources conflict on the date. NASA uses both Universal/ET and PT, which changes the date from 9:05 p.m. January 24 to 12:05 a.m. January 25.)
February 2, 2004 – For the first time, both Spirit and Opportunity are fully operational. The rovers, 6,600 miles apart, collect soil samples and take photographs of the Martian surface. Both rovers find evidence of ancient Martian environments that were intermittently wet and habitable.
August 12, 2005 – The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launches. It will scan the planet for more signs of water.
March 10, 2006 – The Reconnaissance Orbiter reaches Mars and establishes its orbit. It carries the most powerful camera ever to leave Earth, called HiRise. The camera takes its first four pictures on March 23, while the orbiter circles Mars at a distance of between 600 and 2,500 miles (900 to 4,000 kilometers). This initial phase of exploration lasts two weeks.
January 24, 2007 – On the third anniversary of its landing, Opportunity continues its mission of exploring the Martian terrain — 33 months longer than originally intended.
August 4, 2007 – NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander is launched successfully. Its rocket launches at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and takes about 10 months to reach Mars. Phoenix, part of NASA’s Scout program for smaller and lower-cost spacecraft, is designed to analyze soil samples and scan the Martian atmosphere after landing near its northern pole.
May 25, 2008 – The Mars Phoenix Lander completes a 296-day, 422-million-mile journey, landing near the planet’s north pole.
November 2008 – The Mars Phoenix Lander ceases communications after completing its mission. Originally expected to last 90 Martian solar days, the lander performs scientific investigations for 149 days of its 152-solar-day lifetime.
March 22, 2010 – Last communication is heard from Spirit. The project continues to monitor for further communication. Opportunity is still operational.
September 10, 2010 – Scientists release data from the Mars Phoenix Lander suggesting that water has been weathering Mars’ surface throughout history. Data also suggests that Mars’ carbon dioxide atmosphere has been replenished by geologically recent volcanic eruptions providing evidence for what could be ongoing activity.
April 6, 2011 – The rover nicknamed Curiosity is unveiled. It is far larger than Spirit and Opportunity, weighing approximately 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms) and about the size of a Mini Cooper car.
May 25, 2011 – NASA scientists end attempts to regain contact with Spirit.
November 26, 2011 – The Curiosity rover launches from Cape Canaveral at 10:02 a.m. ET, aboard an Atlas V rocket bound for Mars. The journey is scheduled to last approximately 8.5 months.
August 6, 2012 – Curiosity successfully lands on Mars at 1:32 a.m. ET.
September 26, 2013 – The journal Science publishes five articles regarding Mars, revealing raw data which indicates the Martian surface contains about two percent water by weight.
September 21, 2014 – NASA’s MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission) craft arrives in Mars’ orbit after traveling 442 million miles in the course of 10 months to get there. It is the first mission devoted to studying the upper Martian atmosphere as a key to understanding the history of Mars’ climate, water and habitability.
September 24, 2014 – India’s Mars Orbiter Mission successfully enters Mars’ orbit, becoming the first nation to arrive on its first attempt, and the first Asian country to reach the Red Planet.
January 16, 2015 – NASA announces that the Beagle 2, missing for 11 years, has been spotted on Mars. It appears the lander’s solar panels did not completely open upon landing, hindering communication.
March 2015 – India’s Mars Orbiter completes its 160-day mission. It continues operating.
September 28, 2015 – NASA scientists say potentially life-giving water still flows across the surface of Mars from time to time, a discovery that may mean a breakthrough in both the search for life beyond Earth and human hopes to one day travel there.
March 14, 2016 – The European Space Agency launches a module bound for Mars with its ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter. The module, called Schiaparelli, is scheduled to enter Mars’ orbit and land on October 19, but it crashes when landing. The spacecraft was created to detect atmospheric gases that could mean there’s active, biological life on Mars.
September 29, 2017 – During a presentation at the International Astronautical Congress in Australia, Elon Musk says his rocket company, SpaceX, aims to land at least two cargo ships on the Red Planet in 2022 in order to place power, mining and life support systems there for future flights. Ships carrying crews would arrive in 2024, he added.
May 5, 2018 – NASA launches InSight, the first outer space robotic explorer to study the interior of Mars during a two-year mission. InSight — short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — will touch down just north of the Martian equator on November 26, joining five other NASA spacecraft operating on and above Mars.
June 7, 2018 – NASA announces organic matter has been found on Mars in soil samples taken from 3 billion-year-old mudstone in the Gale crater by the Curiosity rover. The rover has also detected methane in the Martian atmosphere.
June 10, 2018 – Last communication is heard from Opportunity in Perseverance Valley.
July 25, 2018 – Researchers from the Italian Space Agency publish a study indicating that a lake of liquid water has been detected beneath the southern polar ice caps of Mars using the European Space Agency’s MARSIS (Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding) instrument.
November 26, 2018 – InSight lands on Mars and begins sending signals to NASA minutes later, including a photo of the surface where it landed.
February 13, 2019 – NASA declares the Opportunity mission complete and says that they are no longer able to contact the Opportunity rover.