digest | Meet the Machines: robotic explorations of planet Mars

Today's family of orbiters, landers, and rovers.
December 11, 2018


image | above
The rover named Curiosity takes a selfie photo on planet Mars.

photo | NASA


— the story —

A gallery of images + historic profiles.

Mars is home to a wide range of robots: orbiters, landers, and rovers. Mars may be a barren desert with no alien life — that we know of — but the planet isn’t lifeless. Thanks to Earth’s ambitious space programs, several robotic labs explore the Martian surface plus its skies.

Every 26 months there’s an opportunity to send a space vehicle from Earth to our neighboring planet Mars, in an efficient trajectory. The trip can take 6 months or more. Probes to Mars often fail. In the gallery and profile set below, you’ll learn all about the spacecraft that successfully voyaged to Mars — that are still actively exploring. NASA calls these current missions.

with materials from: Space + NASA


media | robots on Mars

  • watchcompilation:  50 Years of robots on Mars
  • watchfilm:  the story behind NASA’s most complex rover
  • watchfilm:  making the new Earth on Mars


planets in our solar system | with distances from our sun

Locating Mars + Earth.

The average distance from our sun to a planet or moon in our solar system is measured in units called “astronomical units” — the abbreviation is AU.

One astronomical unit is about the distance from Earth to the sun. But that distance varies as Earth orbits the sun, from a maximum (called: aphelion) to a minimum (called: perihelion) — and back again, once a year.

So 1 AU is defined as approx. 93 million miles. The astronomical unit is used for measuring distances inside our solar system, or around other stars. But it’s also built-in to another measure of astronomical length — called the ParSec.


planet name average distance from the sun
1 Mercury 00.390  au
2 Venus 00.723  au
3 Earth 01.000  au
4 Mars 01.524  au
5 Jupiter 05.203  au
6 Saturn 09.539  au
7 Uranus 19.180  au
8 Neptune 30.060  au
9 Pluto 39.530  au

media | the amazing scale of the solar system

  • watchanimation:  how big is the solar system?
  • watch animation:  the solar system in motion
  • watchfilm:  the solar system to scale
  • watchfeature: making of the film

wall art | charting the solar system

solar system chart: from We Are Squared
solar system poster: from Missing Time


on the web | image gallery

Space | Robots on Mars
deck: meet the machines exploring the red planet today


on the web | pages

NASA | home
NASA | missions
NASA | Mars 2020


PROFILE CARDS | for Mars exploration current missions


no. 1 | Curiosity
type: rover
aka: Mars Science Lab
arrived year: 2012

— one of NASA’s most extensive missions
— rover is size of a small truck
— landed at Gale crater on Mars
— discovery: water existed on Mars once
— discovery: microbes could have lived on Mars once


no. 2 | MAVEN
type: orbiter
aka: Mars Atmosphere + Volatile Evolution
arrived year: 2014

— still orbiting Mars today
— studying Mars atmosphere
— Mars today is cold + dry because it has little atmosphere
— mission: investigate how Mars lost its water + became a desert
— discovery: particles streaming off the sun [ called solar wind ] removed Mars atmosphere
— discovery: vast fields of space dust + space gases [ called inter-stellar clouds ] also thinned Mars atmosphere


no. 3 | Odyssey
type: orbiter
aka: x
arrived year: 2001

— still in a polar orbit around Mars
— longest Mars mission in history
— equipped with powerful cameras
— watches Mars weather
— watches Mars dust storms that endanger rovers on the ground
— mission: looking for water + ice on Mars

NASA | Odyssey


no. 4 | Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
type: orbiter
aka: x
arrived year: 2006

— mission: search for evidence that water once existed on Mars
— mission: search for underground deposits of water + ice
— equipped with the most powerful telescopic camera + spectrometer of all Mars spacecraft
— equipped with 6 science instruments to study the atmosphere + surface
— its instruments watch the daily weather on Mars
— the camera scopes the planet’s surface for landing sites


no. 5 | Spirit + Opportunity
type: rover
aka: Mars Exploration Rovers
arrived year: 2004

— twin rovers landed on Mars by parachute
— the robotic motorized rovers are equipped to study Mars geology
— discovery: both found evidence that water once existed on Mars
— Spirit stopped functioning after it was drained of power + lost in sand
— Opportunity is still exploring Mars


no. 6 | Mars Express
type: orbiter w. lander
aka: x
arrived year: 2003

— the Mars Express brought along a lander called Beagle 2
— the little lander broke during its descent to the ground
— mission: exploring the atmosphere + surface of Mars from polar orbit
— discovery: spotted liquid water + ice on the planet’s south pole
— discovery: found the gas called methane Mars from geological activity inside the planet


no. 7 | Mars Orbiter Mission
type: orbiter
aka: Mangalyaan
arrived year: 2014

— the spacecraft holds a small 33 lbs. payload: 5 scientific instruments
— the payload includes a color camera to study Mars atmosphere
— mission: demonstrate inter-planetary tech ability
— mission: explore Mars surface features, minerals, atmosphere
— the little orbiter is still functional

* Mangalyaan: is “Mars craft” in the language of Sanskrit
* Sanskrit: is a language in the country of India


no. 8 | ExoMars
type: orbiter w. lander
aka: ExoBiology on Mars
arrived year: 2016

— the ExoMars 2-part mission contains: the Trace Gas Orbiter and a lander named Schiaparelli
— the Schiaparelli lander crashed on Mars


no. 9 | InSight
type: lander
aka: x
arrived year: 2018

— mission: to study the deep interior of Mars
— mission: to better understand how rocky planets form
— mission: to test how effectively cube-sats can relay data from another planet



by definition | what is a space probe

A space probe is a spacecraft equipped to leave Earth on a mission to fly-by or orbit around: the sun, another planet, moon, asteroid, or meteor — or go beyond our solar system.

An impact probe is a special purpose space probe designed to deliberately crash into a planet, moon, or asteroid. Impact probes are outfitted with equipment to handle colliding with the surface. The purpose of the impact is to kick-up dust, rocks, and water found on the ground — so that the debris can be studied by on-board lab equipment.


by definition | what is an orbiter

An orbiter is a space probe designed to circle a planet, moon, or the sun — from orbit outside a planet’s atmosphere. Orbiters are also called satellites, equipped with on-board equipment to scan the surface below to detect radiation, heat, dust, water, gases — and map the topography and geology of a planet or moon. They also have advanced communications equipment to relay data back to Earth from their mission.


by definition | what is a rover -vs- lander

A rover is a robotic vehicle + mobile lab that can be operated at-at-distance from space or Earth. It can go where astronauts can’t. It’s carried by spacecraft to the moon, an asteroid, or Mars — where it lands on the surface and deploys: wheels, solar panels, remote-control devices, robotic arms + tools, antennas, cameras, communications devices.

A rover is outfitted with navigation gear — designed to travel on the surface of the moon, an asteroid, or Mars looking at terrain, checking weather, and making maps. Equipped with science instruments and electronic sensors, a rover can drive to a spot on the ground to collect samples of soil, dust, air, sunlight, water for lab studies — and take vital signs like temperature + motion. With powerful cameras it can photograph the environment. With special gear, and using satellites, it transmits information back to Earth so scientists have a close-up view — even though the moon, asteroids, and Mars are so far away.

A robotic lander is essentially the same concept as a rover — except a lander is not designed to travel on the surface of the moon, asteroids, or Mars. A lander is a stationary lab and cannot move.

Both landers + rovers are transported — from Earth to the moon, asteroids, or Mars — in the same way. Powerful propulsion rockets launch spacecraft beyond Earth’s atmosphere and orbit. The rockets separate off the spacecraft and tumble back to Earth. But the spacecraft continues on its journey to remote space destinations. The spacecraft is designed to travel long distances. It carries the lander or rover along with it — and when it arrives deploys the lander or rover so they can descend to the surface where they will stay permanently. Both landers + rovers conduct scientific experiments on the surface and are outfitted with advanced tools. And they can’t lift off, can’t fly, and can’t journey back to Earth. Also, there are no modern re-entry spacecraft that can descend to pick-up a lander or rover on the ground — and bring it home.


* NASA is the US National Aeronautics + Space Admin.


[ story file ]

story title: digest | Meet the Machines: robotic explorations of planet Mars
deck: Today’s family of orbiters, landers, and rovers.
year: 2018
posted: by managing editor
section: digest

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