Mars and the Asteroid Belt


The planets, sizes approximately to scale (distances are not). Image credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute.


Mars is the fourth closest planet to the Sun and takes about 687 days to orbit. A day on Mars is less than an hour longer than a day on Earth. Mars is the next brightest natural object in the sky after Venus, and like Mercury and Venus, Mars is named after a Roman God, the god of war.

Mars is red for the same reason that rust is red, because the iron on its surface is oxidised. Mars has a thin atmosphere, mostly composed of carbon dioxide, and its surface is covered in craters, inactive volcanoes, valleys, deserts, and ice caps. Mars hosts the largest known mountain in the Solar System, Olympus Mons, and the largest canyon, Valles Marineris.

There have been over 40 attempts to send spacecraft to Mars, about 25 of which have been successful. The Soviet Union made eight failed attempts to launch a probe to Mars in the 1960s, starting with Mars 1960A and Mars 1960B in 1960, and Mars 1962A, Mars 1962B, and Mars 1 in 1962. These were followed by Zond 2 in 1964, and Mars 1969A and Mars 1969B in 1969.


Mars, a mosaic of images taken by the Mars Global Surveyor Orbiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS.

NASA made its first attempt to send a probe to Mars in 1964, with Mariner 3 and Mariner 4. Mariner 3 did not send back any useful information but Mariner 4 was successful, and produced the first images of another planet ever to be returned from deep space. Mariner 5 went to Venus, but Mariner 6 and Mariner 7 successfully flew past Mars in 1969. Mariner 8 and Mariner 9 were due to launch in 1971, Mariner 8 failed, but the Mariner 9 mission was successful. It became the first spacecraft to orbit another planet, and remained in orbit for over a year. Mariner 9 found evidence for water on Mars, and showed that it had once contained rivers, which had led to the formation of large and complex canyons.

Mars spacecraft

All spacecraft sent to Mars excluding Mars 2 and Mars 3 (click to enlarge). Image credit: NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA, ESA, ISRO and Jason R. Davis.

The Soviet Union launched 11 probes to Mars in the 1970s, starting with Cosmos 419, Mars 2 and Mars 3, which were launched in 1971. Cosmos 419 was a failure, but Mars 2 and Mars 3 were successful. It was planned for both Mars 2 and Mars 3 to land on the planet, and although Mars 2 crashed, it became the first human-made object to reach the Martian surface.

Mars 3 landed successfully but only transmitted data for 14.5 seconds.

Mars 2 and Mars 3 were followed by Mars 4, Mars 5, Mars 6, and Mars 7, which were all launched in 1973, and were all at least partially successful.

NASA launched Viking 1 and Viking 2 in 1975. These both contained an orbiter and a lander, and both were successful. They returned the first colour photographs of Mars, and confirmed that Mars had once contained both rain and oceans.

The Soviet Union intended Phobos 1 and Phobos 2, to pass Mars on the way to its moon, Phobos. Both launched successfully in 1988, however they lost contact with Phobos 1 before it arrived. The Russian Federal Space Agency attempted to send a probe to Mars in 1996, Mars 96, but it failed to leave the Earth's orbit.

Mars Landing sites

Mars landing sites. Image credit: NASA/AFP.

NASA made several failed attempts to send a probe to Mars in the 1990s, with the Mars Observer, Mars Climate Orbiter, and the Mars Polar Lander. They also had two successes, with the Mars Global Surveyor, and Mars Pathfinder, both of which launched in 1996. The Mars Global Surveyor went into orbit around Mars, and continued to send back information until 2006. Mars Pathfinder landed on the planet with its own miniature Rover, Sojourner. It returned about 17,000 images, monitored the weather, and performed chemical analyses of rocks and soil. Data from both missions indicated that Mars may have once have been warm and wet, with flowing water.

NASA's 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter was launched in 2001, and found evidence of frozen water on the Martian surface. It is currently still in orbit around Mars, and still transmitting data back to Earth

Chasma Boreale

Chasma Boreale, a valley on Mars, a mosaic of images taken by Mars Odyssey. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU.

Japan's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), now part of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), attempted to land Nozomi on Mars in 2003, however it failed to enter into orbit.

The European Space Agency (ESA) launched the Mars Express in 2003. This contained an orbiter and lander, Beagle 2 - named after British biologist Charles Darwin's HMS Beagle. The lander failed, but the orbiter was successful, and confirmed the presence of frozen water and carbon dioxide at the Martian poles. It is still in orbit around Mars, and still transmitting data back to Earth.

NASA also launched probes to Mars in 2003, which contained the Spirit and Opportunity Rovers. These both landed successfully, and the Opportunity Rover found rocks that are thought to have once been underwater, in a salty sea. Opportunity is still active, but NASA lost communication with Spirit in 2010.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was launched in 2005, and attained Martian orbit in 2006. This mapped the terrain and weather in order to find suitable landing sites for future missions. It is currently still orbiting Mars, and transmitting data back to Earth. In 2015, data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was used to show that Mars currently contains flowing water.

NASA's Phoenix spacecraft launched in 2007, and successfully landed on Mars in 2008. The ESA's Rosetta spacecraft passed Mars in 2007, on its way to comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and NASA's Dawn spacecraft passed Mars in 2009, on its way to the asteroid belt. The China National Space Administration (CNSA) attempted to put Yinghuo-1 in orbit around Mars in 2011, however the mission failed to escape the Earth's orbit.

Frost on Mars

Frost on Mars around the Phoenix lander. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University.

Mars sand dunes

Sand dunes, images taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona.

Mars sand dunes

Sand dunes, images taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona.

Mars north pole

North pole, image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

NASA has since sent two more probes to Mars, the Mars Science Laboratory and the MAVEN (the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) orbiter. Both are still in operation. The Mars Science Laboratory launched in 2007, and landed its Rover, Curiosity, in 2012. MAVEN launched in 2013, and began studying the Martian atmosphere in 2014.

Finally, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched the Mars Orbiter Mission, also known as the Mangalyaan orbiter, in 2013. It began orbiting Mars the following year, and is also still in operation.

NASA plan to launch InSight (the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport lander) in 2016. This will land on Mars and study its geology. The Finnish Meteorological Institute plan to send a lander as part of its MetNet program, also in 2016. This will study the atmosphere and weather. The ESA and the Russian Federal Space Agency also plan to launch a mission to Mars in 2016. This mission is known as ExoMars, and will look for evidence of past or present life on Mars. They plan to extend the mission with a Rover, which is due to be launched in 2018. NASA and the ESA may launch the Mars Sample Return Mission in the mid-2020s. This would attempt to return a sample of Martian soil to Earth. The Russian Federal Space Agency may also send a lander, Mars-Grunt, in the mid-2020s. There are currently also many potential amateur missions to Mars being planned including manned missions.


Phobos. Image credit: HiRISE, MRO, LPL (U. Arizona), NASA.


Deimos. Image credit: HiRISE, MRO, LPL (U. Arizona), NASA.

Mars has two moons, Phobos and Deimos, which were discovered by American astronomer Asaph Hall in 1877. These are thought to be asteroids that were captured by Mars' gravitational pull. Phobos and Deimos were first photographed by Mariner 9 in 1971, and later by Viking 1 and Viking 2, and many of the other missions bound for Mars, in the 1990s and 2000s.

In 1988, the Soviet Union launched two probes to Phobos, Phobos 1 and Phobos 2. The first was lost, and the second only relayed a small amount of data. The Russian Space Agency launched a mission to Phobos in 2011, known as Phobos-Grunt, but it was unsuccessful. NASA is currently considering new missions to Mars' moons.

Inner planets

The four inner planets to scale. Image credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute.

The Asteroid Belt

The asteroid belt is composed of boulders made of carbon, silicon, iron, and semi-precious stones, which orbit in the space between Mars and Jupiter. Asteroids are prevented from becoming gravitationally bound, and forming a planet, because of the strong gravitational pull of Jupiter and, individually, they are not massive enough to become spherical.

Over half of the mass of the asteroid belt is contained within four objects - Ceres, Vesta, Pallas, and Hygiea. These are all over 400 km in diameter. The largest asteroid, Ceres, was discovered by Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi in 1801. It is almost 1000 km in diameter and was accepted as a planet for almost 50 years, it is now designated a dwarf planet. In 2014, data from the ESA and NASA's Herschel Space Observatory showed that Ceres has an icy surface, and an atmosphere containing water vapour.

NASA's Pioneer 10 probe was the first spacecraft to travel through the asteroid belt in 1972, later followed by Pioneer 11, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, and Ulysses. Ulysses was a joint mission between NASA and the ESA. It headed for Jupiter, but the Pioneer and Voyager probes were headed even further, and have now moved beyond the Solar System.


Ceres, mosaic of images taken by the Dawn spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.


Vesta, mosaic of images taken by the Dawn spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCAL/MPS/DLR/IDA.

Six spacecraft have observed asteroids on their way to other objects.

The Galileo spacecraft imaged two asteroids in 1991 and 1993, while on its way to Jupiter. These were asteroid 951 Gaspra, and asteroid 243 Ida, which was seen to have a moon, Dactyl. The Cassini spacecraft imaged asteroid 2685 Masursky in 2000, while headed for Saturn. NASA's Stardust passed asteroid 5535 Annefrank on its way to comet Wild in 2002. The New Horizons spacecraft imaged asteroid 132524 APL while heading for Pluto in 2006. The Rosetta spacecraft imaged asteroid 2867 Šteins in 2008, and asteroid 21 Lutetia in 2010, while headed for Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and finally, the CNSA's Chang'e 2 passed asteroid 4179 Toutatis on its way to the Moon.

Five attempts have been made to send spacecraft specifically to asteroids. The first was NASA's Clementine, which launched in 1994, and was headed for the near-Earth asteroid 1620 Geographos, but it malfunctioned before it arrived.

NASA's Deep Space 1 launched in 1998, and passed the asteroid 9969 Braille in 1999. Deep Space 1 went on to observe the comet Borrelly.

NASA launched NEAR Shoemaker (Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous - Shoemaker) in 1996. It passed asteroid 253 Mathilde in 1997, and asteroid 433 Eros in 1999, finally landing on 433 Eros in 2001.

JAXA launched the Hayabusa spacecraft to asteroid 25143 Itokawa, in 2003. It landed in 2005, and collected sampled that were returned to Earth in 2010.

Finally, NASA's Dawn spacecraft was launched in 2007, and began to orbit Vesta in 2011. It left Vesta in September 2012, and is currently in orbit around Ceres.

Back to top

Space & Time


Latitude and Longitude

Force and Energy


Newton's theory of Gravity

The Age of the Universe

Special Relativity

General Relativity

The Big Bang





Earth and Moon

Mars and the Asteroid Belt

Jupiter and Saturn

Uranus and Neptune

The Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud

Pioneer and Voyager


Back to top

Blog Science Timeline

Privacy Policy

Copyright © 2011-2015 Helen Klus.