SpaceX founder Elon Musk says travel to Mars is within reach, with the possibility of having 1 million people living on Mars within 100 years. SpaceX isn’t alone in working toward reaching Mars, however. In fact, there are quite a number of missions, both manned and unmanned, that are currently planned or under proposal from government space organizations and private space flight companies across the globe.
Exploration of Mars and eventual human travel to it are nothing new. While manned missions have remained financial and logistical near-impossibilities, unmanned missions began in 1960. There have been 56 Mars missions so far, of which 26 have been successful — a testament to the difficulty in reaching the red planet.
As it stands right now, there is one rover currently operational, with another en route and due to arrive late this year (as of the writing of this story, Opportunity is stuck in a massive dust storm with low chances for survival). Orbiting Mars are six satellites, providing massive amounts of data on our dusty neighbor.
It doesn’t end there. Many more missions are planned for the 2020, 2022, and 2024 launch windows, and there are proposals to put humans on Mars by the 2030s.
Operational and en route missions
This portion of the list includes the world’s most notable past missions, most of which are still in operation.
Mars Odyssey, 2001
Named after the iconic sci-fi novel and film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Mars Odyssey is a NASA orbital satellite that is currently about 2,400 miles above Mars’ surface. It launched on April 7, 2001, and holds the record as the longest-operating spacecraft orbiting Mars. Mars Odyssey’s mission was to find proof of past or present water on Mars, using spectrometers and a thermal imager to map out the distribution of water, which was successfully proven on July 21, 2008, by the Phoenix lander. Mars Odyssey also serves as a communications relay between Earth and martian rovers, the Mars Science Lab, and the Phoenix lander. It is projected to remain in operation until 2025.
Mars Express, 2003
Mars Express was launched along with the Beagle 2 lander by the European Space Agency on June 2, 2003. While Beagle 2 suffered a lander failure, the Mars Express satellite has remained in successful communication with Earth. Mars Express was launched with the intent of surveying Mars’ surface using high-resolution camera, radars, and spectrometers. Thus far, Mars Express has discovered water ice and carbon dioxide ice in Mars’ southern ice cap, along with an area of liquid water underneath, and has provided better detail of the elemental and chemical makeup of the planet’s surface and atmosphere. The project has also resulted in a topographical map of Mars, high-res surface images, and flybys of Mars’ moon, Phobos. This data has been incredibly valuable, and has earned the craft several end-date extensions. It’s currently scheduled to remain in operation until the end of 2026.
Mars Spirit and Opportunity, 2003
The Spirit and Opportunity rovers arguably represent one of the biggest success stories of the current NASA space program. Launched separately in summer 2003, the pair of rovers arrived on the red planet after about six months. Initially, the plan was for a 90-day mission to study the geology and atmosphere of Mars. But the two rovers didn’t quit: Spirit would continue to transmit until March 2010, and Opportunity until June 2018! The pair of rovers are widely credited with providing the first solid “ground truth’ that at one time” Mars was much wetter than it is today.
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, 2005
On August 12, 2005, NASA launched the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which entered Mars’ orbit on March 10, 2006. The MRO has been observing the landscape and has made numerous high-profile discoveries, including the recent observance of flowing saltwater on the surface and subsurface of the planet. MRO was also used to find a landing zone for the Phoenix Lander, and acts as a relay for communications between active rovers and Earth.
Curiosity Rover, 2011
Like nearly all other unmanned craft listed here, NASA’s Curiosity was made to study the landscape and climate of Mars, comprising the rover portion of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). Specifically, Curiosity is looking for potential evidence of microbial life-sustaining conditions — either past or present — and assessing Mars’ habitability ahead of human contact. It’s most notable find so far is the discovery of organic molecules on the planet’s surface in 2018. The rover is equipped with a vast array of instruments and cameras, and has been operational on Mars since 2012.
Mangalyaan (Mars Orbiter Mission), 2013
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched its first interplanetary mission on November 5, 2013. Dubbed “Mangalyaan,” the craft is an orbiter that has primarily been used as a proof of concept for ISRO’s interplanetary tech capabilities, testing various flight and communications systems, and providing telemetry data. Mangalyaan is also outfitted with a small suite of research instruments designed to capture atmospheric data. It is also the cheapest Mars mission to date, costing only $73 million U.S.
The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) is currently searching for explanations for how and why Mars’ water and atmosphere have been slowly deteriorating and escaping. After entering orbit in 2014, it was quickly able to confirm that Mars’ atmosphere was escaping into space, and further observations found the planet’s magnetic field is more like a tail, disrupted by the solar wind. This could explain the Red Planet’s loss of atmosphere, but scientists are still investigating.
ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, 2016
Launched in 2016, ExoMars is the first in a series of joint Mars missions through a partnership between the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos. The mission actually included two probes, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli EDM Lander, however the lander crashed on the Mars surface after being delivered by the TGO. Researchers hope to gain a better understanding of methane and other trace gases present in the martian atmosphere that could be evidence for possible biological activity.
InSight Lander, 2018
Launched in May 2018, with a successful landing in November of that year, the InSight Lander, short for ‘Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport,” aims to study the core of Mars and observe any possible seismic activity on the planet’s surface. It is hoped the data collected will lead to better understanding of how rocky planets such as Earth, Mars, Venus, and Mercury are formed. The current plans are for a two-month deployment phase upon landing, followed by nearly two years of observations as part of the initial mission.
Thanks to a launch window when Mars is closer to the Earth, enabling shorter trips, and a bit of coincidence, there are quite a few Mars mission launches scheduled for summer 2020. The ones on this list are by no means the only ones. There are no less than seven already confirmed missions through 2024, and at least a dozen more through the mid 2040s.
For the purposes of brevity, we’ll focus on the confirmed missions here in depth, but we’ll also talk about the proposed missions later on.
Hope Mars Mission, 2020
Hope is a notable mission for one big reason: It marks the first Mars probe launched by any Arab or Muslim country. Announced by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates, Hope aims to discover why the planet has lost its atmosphere. The findings are also expected to help scientists better model our own atmosphere going back some 1 million years. The UAE is currently targeting a July 2020 launch, and arrive at Mars in 2021, around the time of the UAE’s 50th Anniversary.
Mars 2020 Rover, 2020
This upcoming NASA mission aims to study Martian astrobiology in an attempt to understand what environmental conditions may have been like on Mars in the past via a Martian sample return. The objective would be to have the rover collect samples of rocks, minerals, and other materials on Mars and return them to Earth in a later mission. Launch is currently scheduled for July 17, 2020, and it is expected touch down in Jezero crater on Mars on February 18, 2021.
Rosalind Franklin, 2020
Named for English chemist and DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin, this rover comprises one part of the joint ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars 2020 mission, which aims to search for evidence of past or present life on Mars over the course of its seven-month operation. ESA will provide the rover, while Roscosmos will supply the lander. The launch window was moved from 2018 to July 2020 due to production delays, but the Rosalind Franklin appears set to make its new launch date.
Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter, Lander, and Small Rover, 2020
China’s National Space Science Center is preparing an interplanetary mission to Mars that will launch in July or August 2020. The mission’s planned payload includes an orbiter, a lander, and a rover. The mission will serve as a technological demonstration of the resources and tech required for a Mars sample return mission, proposed to occur in the 2030s.
Mars Terahertz Microsatellite, 2020
To be launched as a piggyback payload with another Mars-bound mission in the July/August 2020 launch window (no partner has been announced yet), the Mars Terahertz Microsatellite is a joint venture of Japan’s National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT), and the University of Tokyo Intelligent Space Systems Laboratory (ISSL). The terahertz sensor will be sent to the surface of Mars to measure oxygen isotope ratios in the atmosphere to better understand the chemical reactions that resupply the Martian atmosphere with carbon dioxide.
Mangalyaan 2 (Mars Orbiter Mission 2), 2022
Mangalyaan 2 is the Indian Space Research Organization’s follow-up to its initial interplanetary mission to Mars. An orbiter has been announced as the main component of the mission thus far, with a lander and rover as potential additions. The mission is currently planned for the 2021-22 launch window.
Martian Moons Exploration (MMX), 2024
Japan plans to send a probe to Mars’ largest moon Phobos in 2024. It will land on Phobos, collect samples, and also observe the smaller moon Deimos and Mars’ climate during flybys of both. The probe will then send the samples back to Earth. they are expected to arrive in July 2029.
With Mars missions so prohibitively expensive, there are not many approved missions that are government funded. If anything, the 2020s and beyond will see a dramatic increase in privately paid for or crowdfunded missions, not only to Mars but elsewhere in the solar system and beyond.
As it stands right now, only NASA, China’s CNSA, and Roscosmos have any proposed government-backed missions to the Red Planet. NASA plans to send a telecom orbiter to Mars in the late 2020s, with very early plans for eventual manned missions in the 2030s following a successful return to the Moon.
China’s CNSA currently plans for a Martian return mission in 2030 to bring back samples collected by the 2020 Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter, Lander, and Small Rover. Its current plans put Chinese on the moon in 2026. Finally, Roscosmos plans to have Russians on Mars somewhere between 2040 and 2045.
Private companies will not be as restricted. While SpaceX’s plans have been hard to pin down, some kind of mission to Mars still appears likely in the 2020s. Founder Elon Musk wants to land its first transport ship on Mars in 2022, followed by four vehicles, two of which would be crewed, in the 2024 launch window.
That seems pretty aspirational (in fact, Musk has called it just that), and other Mars-bound projects like Mars One have had to dial back their own plans when faced with the harsh reality of interplanetary space travel.
When it initially announced its plans in 2012, it originally planned for humans to be on Mars as soon as 2025. However, the organization has been criticized for its plans and lack of money. Now it says its earliest mission will be in 2022, followed by a host of communications, research, and cargo missions throughout the 2020s, with the first humans arriving on Mars by 2032.