Exploring the Planets


Landed spacecraft can make detailed observations of a planet's surface. However, these observations are restricted to a small area. To obtain coverage over a wider area, spacecraft can carry robots that are able to rove over the surface. Crewed missions or robotic rovers provide not only mobility but also the capability to do complex tasks and make intelligent and selective observations.


Two Soviet mobile vehicles, the Lunokhods, have landed on the Moon, one in November 1970 and the other in January, 1973. The Lunokhods were remotely controlled roving vehicles that carried television cameras and instruments to measure the physical and chemical properties of the lunar soil.

Lunokhod: Moon Robot

Lunokhod: Moon Robot.


The six Apollo lunar landing missions demonstrated the value of manned exploration of planetary surfaces. The astronauts were able to set up scientific instruments, choose the most interesting samples for collection, and study the geology of the lunar surface.

Buzz Aldrin Carries Experiments

An Apollo 11 astronaut carries a small scientific instrument station to be set up away from the Lunar Module. This station and several others are still transmitting data to Earth.

Apollo 15 LRV

Apollo 15 Lunar Roving Vehicle

Three Generations
of Mars Rovers

Since the first Mars rover Sojourner traversed the rocky plain of Ares Valles, increasingly sophisticated vehicles have explored the hills and plains of Mars.

Mars Rovers on Display

Marie Curie and full-scale models of the Mars Exploration Rover and Curiosity on display in the Museum in Washington, DC.

Marie Curie
Sojourner Flight Spare

Marie Curie is the flight spare, or backup vehicle, for the Sojourner rover that operated on Mars in 1997. Nearly identical to Sojourner, Marie Curie was used for testing on a simulated Mars terrain at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Sojourner traveled about 100 meters (330 feet) across the Martian surface with a top speed of 1 centimeter (0.4 inch) per second. It was the first to test a "rocker bogie" mobility system, designed to prevent rovers from tipping over in their exploration of the rocky surface of Mars. During its 83 Martian days of operation, it provided over 500 images and collected chemical data from 16 locations.

Transferred from NASA/JPL-CalTech

Mars Pathfinder Rover: Sojourner

Sojourner deploying the APXS instrument in test terrain.

Sojourner on Mars

Sojourner on Mars (7/23/97) with APXS instrument against the rock named "Yogi".

Mars Exploration Rover

Full-Scale Model
Two Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) arrived on Mars in 2004. Operating long past their design lifetimes, they have explored Gusev Crater and Meridiani Planum, two locations on opposite sides of the planet.

Lent by Cornell University; rover design by JPL-Caltech


The dust-covered Spirit rover took this self-portrait on Mars using its panoramic camera.


Full-Scale Model
Using an innovative "sky crane" landing system, the Mars Science Laboratory rover, named Curiosity, set down in Gale Crater in August 2012. Gale Crater is 150 kilometers (about 90 miles) in diameter and contains a large central mound 5 kilometers (3 miles) high. The mound is made up of many different rock layers that record the geologic history of the area and may tell the story of environmental change over millions of years of Mars' history. Early in its mission, the rover found signs of a past lake at Gale Crater, and evidence that the ancient environment in the area could have supported life.

Transferred from NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity Self-Portrait at 'Mojave'

Curiosity self-portrait at the 'Mojave' site on Mount Sharp.