As humanity approaches Mars colonization, a logical question arises — how much do we know about the Red Planet and which technology has helped us gain the knowledge we have? Even though there are still plenty of things to be discovered about our red neighbour, we already know a lot thanks to multiple interplanetary stations and rovers that have been roaming this planet since 1961. To date, there have been a total of seven rovers on Mars, and three of them are still active now, transmitting valuable data back to Earth. But before we tell you how many rovers are on Mars now and which data they are sending, let’s take a quick look at how this planet’s exploration began.
USSR attempts to land the first rover on Mars
USSR was the first country to land spacecraft on Mars, even though that particular tech can only be called a rover with a stretch. There were a total of three spacecraft in the Soviet’s Prop-M series, and they were all tethered probes rather than independent rovers. Soviet Mars 2 managed to reach the necessary orbit and even started with a descent, but soon enough, it crashed on the surface. Mars 3 landed successfully but shut down after 14.5 seconds of transmitting. Still, it made history as the first man-made spacecraft to ever transmit data from Mars, which is why we are compelled to list it here. Later in the 1970s, USSR repeatedly attempted to land more interplanetary rovers, but none of their spacecraft reached this planet’s surface.
US Rovers on Mars: Success After Two Decades
Unlike the Soviets, the US took some time to carefully prepare for a Mars landing, which is probably why its rovers were (and still are) way more successful. Since 1997, US rovers have been transmitting valuable scientific data from the Red Planet. So, let’s take a look at some facts about rovers on Mars that were the first to send us something of value.
Sojourner landed on Mars on July 4, 1997, and became the first truly successful example of the interplanetary rovers space industry can justly be proud of. Its stay was relatively short — slightly over two months — but during this time, Sojourner sent back 550 images and performed 15 rock analyses. According to Orbital Today, it was data from this rover that allowed scientists to determine the approximate size of Mars’s Metallica core, placing it somewhere 1300-2000 km.
Spirit landed on Mars on January 4, 2004, and was supposed to stay operational for about the same time as Sojourner. However, this rover outperformed itself and kept roaming this planet for two years instead of three months. This ‘stubborn’ piece of equipment helped establish that Mars soil is rich in silicates.
Opportunity followed soon after Spirit, landing on Mars on January 25, 2004. Similar to its twin, it stayed on the Red Planet for years, posting its last stats update on June 10, 2018. Thanks to this tech, we discovered that Mars could have had a humid climate once. Opportunity also found a meteorite on this planet’s surface, which was the third meteorite discovered beyond Earth.
What rovers are on Mars now?
The USA is not the only country to have sent Mars rovers. Right now, three spacecraft are active on our red neighbour — two from NASA and one from China. So, what are the rovers on Mars still working?
This spacecraft is now the oldest still-functioning Mars rover, in operation since August 6, 2012. One of its most notable findings is the discovery of methane in the atmosphere, as well as clay deposits and organic compounds in the soil. This same equipment greatly contributed to analysing climate and surveying mountain slopes.
Perseverance is a relatively new tech that has been roaming Mars since February 18, 2021. Its primary goal is to look for convenient landing sites because humanity today is clearly set on colonizing its red neighbour. As a bonus, this rover carries a small helicopter, Ingenuity — the first aircraft to have successfully flown into Mars’ atmosphere.
Zhurong is the first rover not made by NASA to successfully make a Mars landing on May 15, 2021. Since then, this spacecraft has been actively looking for traces of past life on the Red Planet and conducting a series of other important observations in this process. It has already sent back detailed topographic maps, along with studies of soil, ice, and ionosphere.
Locations of rovers on Mars are regularly monitored by their respective space agencies, and contact is maintained at all times unless dust storms and other outside factors interfere with the signals. Besides, plans for sending more rovers are already in motion, so within the next few years, we may get to monitor more rovers than the three we have now.