Skip to Main Content

Mars Exploration

The Mars Exploration Program is a science-driven program that seeks to understand whether Mars was, is, or can be, a habitable world. To find out, we need to understand how geologic, climatic, and other processes have worked to shape Mars and its environment over time, as well as how they interact today.

Four Science Goals for Mars Exploration

The key to understanding the past, present or future potential for life on Mars can be found in the four broad, overarching goals for Mars Exploration:

Goal 1: Determine if Life ever arose on Mars.

Goal 2: Characterize the Climate of Mars.

Goal 3: Characterize the Geology of Mars.

Goal 4: Prepare for Human Exploration of Mars.


Our Exploration Strategy: Follow the Water!

To discover the possibilities for life on Mars--past, present or our own in the future--the Mars Program has developed an exploration strategy known as "Follow the Water."

Following the water begins with an understanding of the current environment on Mars. We want to explore observed features like dry riverbeds, ice in the polar caps and rock types that only form when water is present. We want to look for hot springs, hydrothermal vents or subsurface water reserves. We want to understand if ancient Mars once held a vast ocean in the northern hemisphere as some scientists believe and how Mars may have transitioned from a more watery environment to the dry and dusty climate it has today. Searching for these answers means delving into the planet's geologic and climate history to find out how, when and why Mars underwent dramatic changes to become the forbidding, yet promising, planet we observe today.

Future Missions

To pursue these goals, all of our future missions will be driven by rigorous scientific questions that will continuously evolve as we make new discoveries.

Brand new technologies will enable us to explore Mars in ways we never have before, resulting in higher-resolution images, precision landings, longer-ranging surface mobility and even the return of Martian soil and rock samples for studies in laboratories here on Earth.

*Sort missions by clicking the column headers.

DivisionNameLaunch DatePhase
Planets Mariner Missions
Between 1962 and 1973, NASA designed and built 10 spacecraft named Mariner to explore the inner solar system – visiting the planets Mercury, Venus, and Mars for the first time, and returning to Venus and Mars for additional close observations.
19620721 July 21, 1962 4Past
Planets Mars Climate Orbiter
Mars Climate Orbiter was designed to function as an interplanetary weather satellite and a communications relay for Mars Polar Lander. This mission is part of the Mars program.
19981211 December 11, 1998 4Past
Planets Mars Exploration Rover - Opportunity
The Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity was originally designed for a 90 Sol mission (a Sol, one Martian day, is slightly longer than an Earth day at 24 hours and 37 minutes). Its mission has been extended several times as it ...
20030707 July 07, 2003 3Operating
Planets Mars Exploration Rover - Spirit
Mars Exploration Rover Spirit landed in Gusev crater on Mars in January 2004. The rover carries a sophisticated set of instruments that allow it to search for evidence of liquid water that may have been present in the planet's past. ...
20030610 June 10, 2003 4Past
Planets Mars Express (ASPERA-3)
Mars Express is exploring the atmosphere and surface of Mars from polar orbit. The mission's main objective is to search for sub-surface water from orbit and deploy a lander onto the Martian surface.
20030602 June 02, 2003 3Operating
Planets Mars Global Surveyor
Mars Global Surveyor is returning an unprecedented amount of data regarding Mars' surface features, atmosphere, and magnetic properties. Scientists are using the data gathered from this mission both to learn about the Earth by comparing it to Mars, and to ...
19961107 November 07, 1996 4Past
Planets Mars Observer
Mars Observer was designed to study the geoscience and climate of Mars. This mission is part of SMD's Mars Exploration program.
19920925 September 25, 1992 4Past
Planets Mars Odyssey
The 2001 Mars Odyssey is an orbiter carrying science experiments designed to make global observations of Mars to improve our understanding of the planet's climate and geologic history, including the search for water and evidence of life-sustaining environments.
20010407 April 07, 2001 3Operating
Planets Mars Polar Lander
The Mars Polar Lander was to touch down on the southern polar layered terrain and record local meteorological conditions near the martian south pole. This mission is part of SMD's Mars Exploration program.
19990103 January 03, 1999 4Past
Planets Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) will seek to find out about the history of water on Mars with its science instruments. They will zoom in for extreme close-up photography of the martian surface to analyze minerals, look for subsurface water, ...
20050812 August 12, 2005 3Operating
Planets Mars Science Laboratory
NASA proposes to develop and to launch a roving long-range, long-duration science laboratory that will be a major leap in surface measurements and pave the way for a future sample return mission. The mission will also demonstrate the technology for ...
20111126 November 26, 2011 3Operating
Planets MAVEN
The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN), set to launch in 2013, will explore the planet’s upper atmosphere, ionosphere and interactions with the sun and solar wind. Scientists will use MAVEN data to determine the role that loss of ...
20131118 November 18, 2013 3Operating
Planets Phoenix
Phoenix seeks to verify the presence of the Martian Holy Grail: water and habitable conditions.
20070804 August 04, 2007 4Past
Planets Viking 1 - 2
Two Viking spacecraft, each composed of an orbiter and a lander, flew to Mars in the mid 1970's. They measured atmospheric water vapor, did chemical analysis of the soil, and took photographs of the entire surface.
19750820 August 20, 1975 4Past