To date, Mars is the only planet in our solar system that humanity has successfully sent and landed rovers on the surface. As of 2021, there have been a total of six successful missions to Mars that have landed a rover on the surface, five of which were built and launched by NASA.
The First Mars Rover
Although NASA had landed spacecraft on Mars as early as the 1970s, the first true Mars rover landed on Mars in 1997. Although having rovers on Mars seems pretty commonplace, they are a fairly recent addition to the Red Planet. The first rover to successfully land on Mars was NASA’s Sojourner rover. Sojourner was part of NASA’s Pathfinder mission, wherein NASA landed a robotic spacecraft on the Martian surface equipped with a small rover. Sojourner was only operational for 95 Earth days and travelled a total distance of 330 feet. Although that may seem insignificant, it is important to note that Sojourner was the first wheeled vehicle to successfully drive on the surface of another planet. Its mission may not have lasted long, yet it allowed scientists to experiment with driving on Mars, providing data that would be used in future missions.
Spirit And Opportunity
Seven years after Sojourner landed on Mars, NASA successfully landed two more rovers on Mars in 2004. Spirit landed on Mars first, with Opportunity landing three weeks after. The missions were originally planned to have a mission lifespan of around 90 days, yet both exceeded this timeline. Spirit remained operational until 2010, a year after the rover unfortunately got stuck. Meanwhile, Opportunity remained operational until 2018. The planned 90 day mission lasted over 5,000 days, making Opportunity one of the most successful missions in the history of spaceflight by exceeding all expectations. Over the course of its life, Opportunity travelled a total distance of 28 miles (45 kilometres). Opportunity currently holds the record for longest time on Mars for any rover.
The Curiosity rover is perhaps the most famous rover on Mars. It landed on Mars in 2012 for a planned mission of two years. Shortly after landing, however, NASA extended its mission indefinitely, and Curiosity is still operational and sending back data. On August 6, 2022, Curiosity celebrated its 10th anniversary on Mars. Curiosity has provided scientists with unprecedented data on Martian geology, climate, and the presence of water throughout Mars’s history.
Perseverance And Zhurong
The year 2021 saw two rovers land on the surface of Mars, one launched by NASA and the other by China’s National Space Administration. Perseverance is NASA’s latest rover, having landed on Mars in February 2021. Perseverance can be thought of as an upgraded version of Curiosity, with its primary goals being to expand upon what Curiosity has discovered, as well as find potential landing sites for future missions to Mars. Furthermore, Perseverance was equipped with a small helicopter called Ingenuity, which became the first human-made object to successfully fly on the surface of another planet. In May 2021, China successfully landed the Zhurong rover on the surface of Mars. It is China’s first successful attempt at landing on Mars and the first rover from a country other than the United States to land a rover on Mars.