Mars Landers - A Chronology of Successful Landings on Mars (and some that weren't..)

13 Mars Landers - 7 Successful Mars Landings

Since the early 1960's, the people of Earth began sending probes to explore the Red Planet. 

The first were simple fly-bys - high speed passes of the planet with the hope of catching a few images up close.

Then came the orbiters - probes that would slow down by aerobraking in the thin Martian atmosphere in the hope of achieving a successful orbital capture.

And then came the landers. 13 of them in all, including the most recent -- ExoMars 2016 Schiaparelli lander.

And, as Schiaparelli has shown, not all of these Mars landers were successful.

Getting to Mars orbit is very difficult and has had its share of successes and failures. Landing on the Red Planet is worse.  

Of the thirteen Mars landers sent so far, only seven have successfully reached the surface and performed their mission.

Here's a brief history of those landers.​

Mars2 and Mars3 - 1971

Mars 6 - 1974

Soviet Mars landers include Mars 2

Mars 3 Replica

Starting in 1960, the Soviet Union launched a series of probes to Mars. Most were designed as orbiters, along with a  couple Phobos probes and landers, but only a handful were meant to actually land on the Red Planet.

In 1971, the first of these Mars landers arrived and began their descent.

Mars 2

Mars 2 arrived on November 27, 1971 but failed during descent.

Status - FAILED​

Mars 3

Mars 3 arrived a few days later, on December 2, and actually achieved a soft landing.

Mars 3 spacecraft show where the MArs landers were stowed at the top

Mars 3 spacecraft

The descent module entered the Martian atmosphere at roughly 5.7 km/s. Through a combination of aerobraking, parachutes, and thrusters, Mars 3 became the first Mars lander to achieve a soft landing when it touched down at 45°S 202°E.

Unfortunately, after just 14.5 seconds, transmission from the lander stopped for unknown reasons and Mars 3 was never heard from again.

The cause was never determined. Was it a fault with the lander? Or perhaps the communication relay on the orbiter? Maybe it was simply that this particular Mars lander reached the surface during a huge dust storm, which may have caused a coronal discharge and fried the electronics.

No one knows.

Although the lander did achieve a soft landing and actually transmit for a brief moment, and since no useful data was ever received, this attempted MArs landing must also be listed as a failure.

Status - FAILED​

Mars 6

In the next launch window a couple of years later, the Soviet Union sent another probe to Mars in an attempt to achieve the first successful Mars landing.

Two previous orbiters, Mars 4 and Mars 5, were launched in 1973 and would relay data for the subsequent Mars 6 lander, but Mars 4 failed to reach orbit and, although Mars 5 did achieve orbit, it failed a few days later.

​On March 12, 1974, the Mars 6 lander separated from the flyby bus. As with Mars 3, a combination of aerobraking and parachutes, followed by a retrorocket burn just prior to touchdown, were meant to slow the lander down for a soft landing.

The Mars lander did return data for 224 seconds during its descent, but, just as the lander was about to fire its thrusters, all contact was lost. In addition, due to a design flaw, a chip aboard the spacecraft degraded during the mission and most of the data returned during descent was unusable.

Status - FAILED​

Viking 1 and 2 - 1976

Not to be outdone, the American Viking program launched from Earth in 1975 with arrival targeted for 1976.

Viking 1

Viking Mars landers

Viking Mars Lander

As with the Soviet Mars landers, the Viking landers used a combination of aerobraking, parachutes and retrorockets to touchdown. On July 20, 1976, the Viking 1 Lander separated from its associated orbiter and became the first spacecraft to land successfully on Mars and perform its mission.

The Viking 1 Lander touched down in western Chryse Planitia at 22.2848°N 49.5812°W and continued operations for 6 years (2307 days, or 2245 sols). That record stood for nearly 24 years until it was broken by Opportunity in 2010.

Status - SUCCESS

Viking 2

Just a couple of months after Viking 1, Viking 2 and its associated orbiter arrived at Mars, and Viking 2 began its descent to the surface on Spetember 3, 1976.

The Viking 2 Lander touched down in Utopia Planitia about 200 km west of the crater Mie at 47.97°N 225.74°W. The lander operated on the surface for 1316 days, or 1281 sols, until April 11, 1980 when its batteries failed

Status - SUCCESS

Pathfinder - 1997

Pathfinder and Sojourner Mars Landers


After a 20 year hiatus in exploring Mars, NASA finally sent another probe in 1997 to the Martian surface.

Pathfinder (later renamed Carl Sagan Memorial Station) was a designed as a scientific base station that was accompanied by a small, robotic rover called Sojourner.

Launched December 4, 1996, this particular Mars lander touched down on July 4, 1997 at 19°7'48"N 33°13'12"W and ended September 27.

Although the mission lasted a modest 85 days, it was noted for its comparatively low cost ($150 million versus $3.5 billion for Viking in 1997 dollars) and scientific accomplishments.

Status - SUCCESS

Mars Polar Lander - 1999

As part of the Mars Surveyor '98 program, NASA launched the Mars Polar Lander and Deep Space 2 Orbiter on January 3, 1999.

11 months later, on December 3, 1999, the probe arrived at Mars. After the descent phase was expected to have been completed, however, the lander failed to establish a link back to Earth and it was deemed lost.

A post-mortem analysis determined that the most likely cause of failure was a premature engine cutoff and a high velocity impact on the surface.

Status - FAILED​

Beagle 2 - 2003

Beagle 2 Replica

Early at the turn of the century, the European Space Agency got into the game with its Beagle 2 Mars lander.

Named after the ship Charles Darwin used (HMS Beagle), Beagle 2 was a British lander that was part of ESA's 2003 Mars Express mission. The spacecraft successfully deployed from the Mars Express probe, but, during descent, lost contact and was declared lost in February 2004.

The fate of the lander remained a mystery for nearly 11 years until NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRise camera found it intact on the surface.

Turns out the solar panels failed to completely deploy, blocking the communications antenna and dooming the mission.

Status - FAILED​

Spirit and Opportunity - 2004

In 2004, NASA launched a pair of Mars landers to opposite sides of the planet as part of their Mars Exploration Rover program.


Spirit Mars Lander


The Spirit Mars lander and rover arrived on the Martian surface January 4, 2004. The landing site was the Gusev crater, which may have once been a lake, at coordinates 14.5684°S 175.472636°E.

Initially scheduled for a 90-sol mission, Spirit kept operating until March 22, 2010, approximately 2208 sols or almost 5 years and 4 months in Earth time.

Status - SUCCESS


Opportunity Mars Lander


Opportunity, an identical twin to Spirit, landed on January 25, 2004, three weeks after its identical twin, on the opposite side if the planet at coordinates 1.9462°S 354.4734°E.

Opportunity was also designed for a 90-sol mission, but it did even better than Spirit. After operating over 50 times its planned mission, Opportunity continues to function and is one of only two rovers still active on the surface of Mars.

Status - SUCCESS

Phoenix - 2008

Phoenix Mars Lander

Phoenix Mars Lander

In 2008, NASA, in partnership with multiple universities around the world, launched another probe to explore the the Martian polar regions. This time they would target the North Pole with another one of their Mars landers - Phoenix.

Phoenix touched down on May 25, 2008 at coordinates 68.22°N 125.7°W. Its primary mission goals - search for sites where microbial life might survive and to research the history of water at the pole.

As with the Spirit and Opportunity Mars landers, Phoenix was only designed for a 90 sol mission duration. It continued to operate for 157 sols, though, before the Martian winter set in and the power dropped below nominal levels. The mission concluded November 2, 2008.

Status - SUCCESS

Curiosity - 2012

Curiosity Rover self portrait

Curiosity Rover self portrait

Another of NASA's successful Mars landers, Curiosity was launched November 26, 2011 aboard the Mars Science Labratory (MSL) spacecraft and landed on Aeolis Palus in the Gale Crater (coordinates 4.5895°S 137.4417°E) on August 6, 2012.

The rover's primary goals are to investigate the Martian climate and geology, including the history and presence of water, looking for sites that might be favorable to microbial life, and to assist planetary habitability studies in preparation for future human missions.

As with the rover Opportunity, Curiosity's operations continue to this day.

Status - SUCCESS

Schiaparelli - 2016

Schiaparelli Mars Lander

Schiaparelli Mars Lander

In 2016, ESA returned to Mars, in partnership with Russia this time, with their ExoMars 2016 mission.

The mission had broad, bold goals to search for traces of life by looking for methane sources in the martian atmosphere and mapping water deposits from the TGO, or Trace Gas Orbiter. In addition, a technology demonstrator, Schiaparelli, was to be the first of a pair of Mars landers that would investigate the surface (the second lander is scheduled in the ExoMars 2020 Mission.

Schiaparelli separated cleanly from TGO and began its descent October 19, 2016, but never established communication back to Earth. An orbital pass from NASA's MRO was also unable to communicate with the lander. Preliminary findings suggest the thrusters may have cut off prematurely.

The fate of the lander remains unkown.

Status - FAILED​

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