NASA is abuzz with the first flight of its Orion spacecraft, a vessel the agency hails as a pioneer in taking humans deep into the solar system--and one day to Mars. The Orion launched Dec. 5 for a four-plus hour test flight to stress its heat shield for the extreme temperatures that atmospheric-entry generates. The initial flight was also designed to test the craft's durability to the intense radiation beyond low-earth orbit, the area to which humans have been confined since the Apollo lunar missions.

Despite this first modest step with Orion, NASA has a long history investigating the Red Planet, dating back 50 years to the Mariner 4 mission that gave us our first close photos of Mars. Today, the planet is widely scrutinized, with the United States currently fielding two scientific landers on the surface, the European Space Agency operating the Mars Express mission and India arriving in September 2014 with its Mars Orbiter Mission, also known as Mangalyaan. Have a look at the craft that have enabled NASA's periodic visits to a rocky planet 34 million miles away. One day, with the numerous lessons learned from Mercury to Orion, humans may actually survey Mars with their own eyes.

Source: NASA

NASA is abuzz with the first flight of its Orion spacecraft, a vessel the agency hails as a pioneer in taking humans deep into the solar system--and one day to Mars. The Orion launched Dec. 5 for a four-plus hour test flight to stress its heat shield for the extreme temperatures that atmospheric-entry generates. The initial flight was also designed to test the craft's durability to the intense radiation beyond low-earth orbit, the area to which humans have been confined since the Apollo lunar missions.

Despite this first modest step with Orion, NASA has a long history investigating the Red Planet, dating back 50 years to the Mariner 4 mission that gave us our first close photos of Mars. Today, the planet is widely scrutinized, with the United States currently fielding two scientific landers on the surface, the European Space Agency operating the Mars Express mission and India arriving in September 2014 with its Mars Orbiter Mission, also known as Mangalyaan. Have a look at the craft that have enabled NASA's periodic visits to a rocky planet 34 million miles away. One day, with the numerous lessons learned from Mercury to Orion, humans may actually survey Mars with their own eyes.

Source: NASA

Red Planet Retrospective: NASA's 30-Year Mission to Mars

NASA is abuzz with the first flight of its Orion spacecraft, a vessel the agency hails as a pioneer in taking humans deep into the solar system--and one day to Mars. The Orion launched Dec. 5 for a four-plus hour test flight to stress its heat shield for the extreme temperatures that atmospheric-entry generates. The initial flight was also designed to test the craft's durability to the intense radiation beyond low-earth orbit, the area to which humans have been confined since the Apollo lunar missions.

Despite this first modest step with Orion, NASA has a long history investigating the Red Planet, dating back 50 years to the Mariner 4 mission that gave us our first close photos of Mars. Today, the planet is widely scrutinized, with the United States currently fielding two scientific landers on the surface, the European Space Agency operating the Mars Express mission and India arriving in September 2014 with its Mars Orbiter Mission, also known as Mangalyaan. Have a look at the craft that have enabled NASA's periodic visits to a rocky planet 34 million miles away. One day, with the numerous lessons learned from Mercury to Orion, humans may actually survey Mars with their own eyes.

Source: NASA

The Mariner 4, in 1964, was the first successful Mars flyby and gave us the first deep-space planet photographs.

Source: NASA

The first close-up images of Mars, from the Mariner 4 spacecraft. 

Source: NASA

The Mariner 9, in 1971, was the first Mars orbiter, and the first spacecraft to orbit another planet.

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NASA's Viking mission comprised two spacecraft, Viking 1 and Viking 2, and were the first craft to successfully land on Mars. Viking 1 was launched on August 20, 1975 and arrived at Mars on June 19, 1976.

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The Viking Landers transmitted images of the surface, took surface samples and analyzed them for composition and signs of life, studied atmospheric composition and meteorology, and deployed seismometers. - NASA

Source: NASA

This image of Chryse Planitia was taken by camera 2 on the Viking 1 Lander on July 20, 1978.

Source: NASA

The "Spirit" rover is one of two launched to Mars in mid-2003. The rovers arrived in January 2004, equipped with a battery of scientific instruments. The missions were to last for 90 days, until April 2004, but both have lasted well beyond that time. The rovers are collecting data to help determine if life ever arose on Mars, study the climate and geology of Mars and to prepare for an eventual human visit to Mars.

Source: NASA

Data from NASA's "Spirit" rover that was collected in late 2005 confirmed that an outcrop called "Comanche" contains a mineral indicating that a past environment was wet and non-acidic, possibly favorable to life.

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The Phoenix Mars Lander was designed to study the surface and near-surface environment of a landing site in the high northern area of Mars.

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The plains of the northern polar region of Mars are shown from the Phoenix Mars Lander after a successful landing on May 26, 2008.

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The Mars Science Laboratory, nicknamed "Curiosity", is a large rover with the objective of exploring the martian environment as a former or current habitat for life. - NASA

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The Gale Crater, where the "Curiosity" rover landed on August 5, 2012.

 

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Nili Patera is one of the most active dune fields on Mars. 

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Mars’ northern-most sand dunes.

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A dune field on Mars in a large crater near Mawrth Vallis. 

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A full-size ground test Orion spacecraft inside the Operations and Checkout building at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on July 2, 2012.

Photographer: Bruce Weaver/AFP via Getty Images

Humans haven't traveled beyond low-earth orbit since the last Apollo moon mission in December 1972. NASA is ready to commence a new era of deep-space exploration with the first Orion flight, the first step of a journey to land humans on Mars in the next 25 years.The first Orion flight takes place in December 2014. Before reaching the red planet, Orion is designed to take humans to a rendezvous with an asteroid, and an orbit around the moon during the 2020s.

Source: NASA