Mars rovers have been helping scientists explore the red planet since the 1990s. Even though we can learn a lot about a planet using telescopes and orbiters, there is no substitute for actually being able to land and get samples to analyze them up close.
To learn the history of the Mars Rovers and their accomplishments we need to answer questions like “how many Mars rovers have there been?” and “how many are still operational?”.
In this article, we’ll answer all those questions by providing an updated list of all Mars rovers, their current status, and a brief explanation of their discoveries.
What is a Mars rover?
Mars rovers are small all-terrain, robotic vehicles that are designed to travel and survive on the Martian surface.
The objective of the rovers is to study the red planet by analyzing its surface, atmosphere, looking for signs of life, and performing experiments so we can get learn more about the way things work under the rough conditions of the Martian surface.
The rovers are not autonomous. They are controlled from Earth by a specialized team of scientists, astronomers, engineers, and people from many other disciplines. They are constantly sending all the information they get so it can be analyzed here.
We have a more in-depth article about all this. If you want to learn more, check it out here: What does a Mars rover do?
List of current and past Mars rovers.
A total of 8 rovers have been launched to Mars. Only 7 of them landed successfully and 3 are currently operational.
The following table shows all of the rover missions sorted by launch date.
|Rover name||Launch date||Landing date||Country||Operated for||Status|
|Mars 2||May 19, 1971||Failed||USRR||Failed|
|Mars 3||May 28, 1971||December 2, 1971||USRR||110 seconds||Inactive|
|Sojourner||December 4, 1996||July 4, 1997||USA||95 days||Inactive|
|Spirit||June 10, 2003||January 4, 2004||USA||2,249 days||Inactive|
|Opportunity||July 7, 2003||January 25, 2004||USA||5,498 days||Inactive|
|Curiosity||November 26, 2011||August 6, 2012||USA||Active|
|Zhurong||July 23, 2020||May 14, 2021||China||Active|
|Perseverance||July 30, 2020||February 18, 2021||USA||Active|
About the rover names
The names listed are those of the actual vehicles. The rockets and spacecraft they are launched on usually have other names. For example, the Perseverance was launched on an Atlas V 541 rocket.
The names of the USA rovers are selected via contests where elementary school kids can suggest options that are later voted on.
Mars rover missions
Mars 2 and Mars 3
The Mars 2 and 3 missions were launched by the Soviet Union in 1971 as a way to try to compete with the success of the Apollo program that sent a person to the Moon for the first time.
Unfortunately for the Soviets, the missions were for the most part a failure. While both spaceships managed to get to Mars, the rovers were not able to complete their missions.
The Mars 2 lander crashed during entry and communication with the rover was lost immediately.
The Mars 3 managed to land on Mars, but the rover only managed to send communications for less than two minutes. It is believed that it was hit by a dust storm. The rover was considered lost shortly thereafter.
The Sojourner was the first American rover to land on Mars. It was a small and light vehicle, barely the size of a microwave oven.
The main objective of the Sojourner mission was to build a vehicle that could operate on a different planet under extreme conditions and design a new, cheaper generation of spacecraft that could allow us to explore other planets. In many ways, you could say that the science objectives of the Sojourner were secondary as it only had a few instruments.
The Sojourner was only designed to work for 7 days, but it beat all expectations and remained operational for 95 days.
The Spirit was a big leap in technology compared to the Sojourner. It included 5 different science tools to take samples and perform experiments.
The main objective of the Spirit was to take geological samples and examine the Martian surface to learn more about it as well as confirm (or deny) theories scientists had from observations made by the Reconnaissance orbiter. It was also the first rover to look for evidence that Mars had liquid water in the past and search for signs of life.
The mission was planned for 90 days, but it beat expectations and remained operational for almost seven years. It was lost after it got stuck in a sand trap.
The Opportunity was another big success for Mars rovers. It holds the record of longevity as it was able to remain operational for more than 15 years (its planned mission was 90 days).
The Opportunity and the Spirit were twin missions. They launched very close to each other and were very similarly equipped. The main difference was that the Opportunity’s mission was to explore a crater.
This rover was finally lost when in 2018 a dust storm fully covered its solar cells which stopped it from being able to recharge its battery.
The Curiosity was an evolution of the success of the Opportunity and Spirit. The design of this rover was much bigger and could reach almost 4 times the speed of the previous models. It is equipped with even more advanced technology and was the first one with plenty of tools to study Mars’ climate and atmosphere, and the effects of radiation on the surface.
One of the main missions of the Curiosity is to look for signs of current or past signs of microbial life.
The Curiosity is still operational and in good condition at the time of writing.
The Zhurong rover was China’s first successful attempt at landing a rover on another planet. It was part of the ambitious Tianwen-1 mission that launched 6 different spacecraft to Mars including one orbiter, one lander, three remote cameras, and a rover.
The mission of the Zhurong is to study the topology, geology, and atmospheric environment of Mars.
The Zhurong completed the planned part of its mission in 2021 and remained operational.
At the time of writing, the status of the Zhurong is a bit unknown. It has lost communication and it is suspected that it was damaged during the latest Martian winter, but scientists are hoping it can still be recovered.
The Perseverance is the latest Mars rover to land on the surface of the red planet. Its design is based on the Curiosity but the instruments it carries are considerably more sophisticated.
One of the missions of the Perseverance that distinguishes it from the previous ones is that it is looking to assess the habitability of the planet for future manned missions to Mars. It is doing this by testing a system that extracts oxygen out of the carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere so that a future colony could produce it right there instead of having to “import” it from Earth.
The Perseverance also brought the Ingenuity. A small drone that has been giving us amazing photographs of the Martian landscape and terrain.
The mission of this Mars rover was expected to last at least one Martian year (almost two Earth years) but it is still in great condition so it is very likely that it will last for much longer.