Posted by: earthandbeyond | May 30, 2008

Earth’s armada of planetary probes

I thought I’d have a rundown of the planets (and dwarf planets) that currently have active probes.  There are a lot!

First, we have Mercury.  NASA’s MESSENGER probe has made its first flyby, and will have 2 more before it goes into orbit around Mercury.  I’m looking forward to seeing the science from this mission.  It’ll be nice to finally see a complete view of the planet.

Next, there’s Venus.  ESA’s Venus Express is currently orbiting the planet, studying the atmosphere.  It’ll also give some important information about whether the planet is volcanically active.

I won’t talk about Earth probes.  But the Moon has a couple orbiting it.  JAXA’s Kaguya (SELENE) is currently orbiting the Moon.  I remember when it returned HD video of the Earth rising over the Moon’s horizon.  And then China’s CNSA Chang’e 1 orbiter is making a 3D map of the Moon, as well as studying geology.

Mars has the largest number of active probes.  I’ll do them in chronological order of arrival at Mars.  First, we have NASA’s Mars Odyssey, which has been active since 2001.  It’s been mapping Mars, as well as acting as a relay for the two rovers.  Then there’s ESA’s Mars Express, which has been mapping, studying the atmosphere, and using radar to measure the planet’s permafrost.  Next, we have the two Mars Exploration Rovers from NASA, Spirit and Opportunity.  Spirit has been exploring Gusev Crater, while Opportunity has been exploring an area in Meridiani Planum, and has gone into Victoria Crater.  Both rovers have been operating since 2004.  Then there’s NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been returning unbelievably high resolution images of the surface of Mars.  The pictures are incredible, and have returned some very important discoveries.  Finally is NASA’s Phoenix, which recently landed in Mars’ arctic plains.  Its mission has only just begun, so there will be a lot of posts on this blog about Phoenix.

On to Vesta and Ceres.  Vesta is an asteroid and Ceres is a dwarf planet.  NASA’s Dawn is headed toward Vesta first, then will go to Ceres.  I’m looking forward to the science returned from this mission.

Saturn has a single probe orbiting it, Cassini.  It’s a collaboration of NASA, ESA and ASI (Italy).  It carried the Huygens probe, which landed on Titan.  Cassini has returned incredible science and pictures from Saturn and its moons, and is still going strong.  Titan, Enceladus and Hyperion have all been very interesting.

The former planet, current dwarf planet Pluto finally has a probe of its own.  NASA’s New Horizons is on its way to Pluto, and will arrive in 2015.  It’ll be a flyby, but we’ll be able to see what Pluto and Charon look like, finally.  We will also see the more recently discovered moons Nix and Hydra.  I can’t wait!

There’s a lot of exciting science being done right now in the Solar System.  But the future holds even more discoveries.  I’ll make another post about future missions to the planets.



  1. great summary – thanks!

  2. No problem. I’ll be doing a summary of future missions, as well. Look for it in the near future!

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