Exploring the Solar System – The New York Times

Exploring the Solar System – The New York Times

Three missions to Mars this summer — from NASA, China and the United Arab Emirates — will join dozens of active and inactive spacecraft beyond Earth’s orbit.

Spacecraft Orbiting the Sun

Solar Orbiter launched in February to study the sun and its poles.

Parker Solar Probe skims the edge of our star.

STEREO A and STEREO B track solar storms.

Tesla Roadster lazily orbits the sun.

Spitzer watched newborn planets and retired this year.

Kepler tallied planets until it shut down in 2018.

Ulysses was first to study the sun’s poles.


BepiColombo is looping inward to arrive in 2025.

Messenger mapped the planet and crashed in 2015.

Mariner 10 was first to reach Mercury, in 1974.


Akatsuki studies slow-spinning Venus, and launched with the IKAROS solar sail.

Venus Express probed the Venusian atmosphere.

Magellan mapped the planet and plunged through its clouds.

Vega 1 and Vega 2 dropped landers before moving on to Halley’s comet.

Pioneer Venus 1 dropped probes in 1978.

Mariner 10 flew by in 1974.

Venera 7 was first to land softly. More Venera spacecraft followed in the 70s and early 80s.

L1 Lagrangian Point

A balance point between sun and Earth.

DSCOVR looks back at the sunlit Earth.

ACE studies particles from the sun and beyond.

SOHO watches space weather and finds new comets.

WIND studies the solar wind.

LISA Pathfinder kept two weights in freefall, a test for sensing gravitational waves.

Genesis caught solar wind particles and crashed them back to Earth.

ISEE-3 was first to orbit the L1 point, in 1978. The spacecraft was revived by techno-archaeologists in 2014.


The International Space Station presides over more than 2,600 smaller satellites in Earth orbit.

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Hubble just turned 30.

Chandra watches stars explode in bursts of X-rays.

TESS hunts for planets and orbits in resonance with the moon.

Heading to Mars

Perseverance may launch this week to roam a dry lake and release the Ingenuity helicopter.

Tianwen-1 launched July 23 to orbit, land and rove.

Hope launched July 19 to orbit Mars.

The Rosalind Franklin rover was postponed to 2022.


Chandrayaan-2 studies the lunar surface. Its Vikram lander crashed near the moon’s south pole in 2019.

Chang’e-4 was first to land softly on the moon’s far side, and released the Yutu-2 rover. It communicates with Earth through the Queqiao relay satellite.

Chang’e 5-T1 passed the moon and sent a test capsule back to Earth.

Chang’e-3 landed with the Yutu rover.

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter maps the surface and spotted the Apollo landers.

The twin ARTEMIS spacecraft study Earth’s magnetosphere.

Beresheet crashed while landing in 2019.

LADEE studied moon dust and crashed on the far side.

Ebb and Flow mapped lunar gravity.

Chang’e-1 mapped the moon. Chang’e-2 orbited and then left for the L2 Lagrangian point.

LCROSS dove into the plume from a crashed Centaur rocket.

Chandrayaan-1 found water.

SMART-1 tested ion propulsion.

Lunar Prospector searched for polar ice.

Clementine tested equipment and cameras.

Hiten counted dust and crashed in 1993. Selene followed to study the evolution of the moon.

Luna 24 was the last of many successful Luna missions. It returned a sample to Earth in 1976.

Explorer 49 was the last American mission to the moon for two decades, until Clementine in 1994.

L2 Lagrangian Point

A balance point behind the Earth.

Spektr-RG surveys the X-ray sky.

Gaia maps a billion stars.

Herschel peered at the stars in infrared.

Planck and WMAP probed the cosmic microwave background.

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InSight landed in 2018 and listens for marsquakes.

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter sniffs for methane and released the doomed Schiaparelli lander.

MAVEN studies the history of Mars.

Mars Orbiter Mission, also called MOM or Mangalyaan, is India’s first mission to another planet.

Curiosity roves Gale Crater, an ancient Martian lake.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter studies and photographs the Martian surface.

Mars Express released the silent Beagle 2 lander, which was only located in 2015.

Mars Odyssey maps water and ice on Mars.

Phoenix landed in the Martian arctic.

Opportunity rover died in 2019.

Spirit rover became trapped in sand after roaming Mars for six years.

Mars Pathfinder landed and released Sojourner, the first rover on another planet.

Mars Global Surveyor mapped the planet.

Viking 1 and Viking 2 dropped landers in 1976.

Mariner 9 was the first craft to orbit another planet.

Mariner 4 was first to pass Mars.


OSIRIS-REx will tap asteroid Bennu in October.

Hayabusa2 shot a hole in asteroid Ryugu, touched its surface and grabbed a sample.

Chang’e-2 orbited the moon and L2 before passing asteroid 4179 Toutatis.

Dawn visited asteroid Vesta and then mapped the dwarf planet Ceres.

Hayabusa sent dust from asteroid Itokawa back to Earth in 2010. Its tiny Minerva lander failed to reach the surface.

NEAR Shoemaker flew by an asteroid before orbiting and landing on Eros.


Rosetta passed asteroids, followed comet 67P/C-G and bounced and lost the Philae lander on its surface.

Deep Impact slammed an impactor into comet Tempel 1 in 2005. Renamed EPOXI, the spacecraft flew on to visit comet Hartley 2.

Stardust flew past an asteroid, returned a sample from comet Wild 2 and took a second look at Tempel 1.

Deep Space 1 passed asteroid Braille in 1999 and comet Borrelly in 2001.

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Giotto, Suisei, Sakigake, Vega 1 and Vega 2 converged on Halley’s comet in 1986.

ISEE-3 was renamed International Cometary Explorer and was first to visit a comet, in 1985. It zipped past Earth again in 2014.


Juno spins in constant sunlight to study Jupiter.

Galileo was first to orbit and crashed in 2003.

Ulysses, Cassini and New Horizons passed Jupiter on their way to other destinations.

Pioneer 10 was first to reach Jupiter in 1973, followed by Pioneer 11 in 1974 and Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 in 1979.


Cassini took stunning images of Saturn and its moons, dropped the Huygens lander on Titan and finally dove inside the rings and vanished.

Pioneer 11 was first to pass Saturn in 1979, followed by Voyager 1 in 1980 and Voyager 2 in 1981.


Voyager 2 flew past in 1986.


Voyager 2 passed Neptune and its moon Triton in 1989.


New Horizons glimpsed the dwarf planet’s frozen heart during a flyby in 2015.

Kuiper Belt

New Horizons passed Ultima Thule — now named Arrokoth — in 2019, and will eventually leave the solar system.

Interstellar Space

Voyager 1 left our solar system in 2012.

Voyager 2 followed in 2018.

Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 are nearly there, but no longer in touch with Earth.

Note: This graphic includes spacecraft currently operating beyond Earth orbit, as well as many crashed or inactive spacecraft from recent decades. It omits the Apollo missions, most spacecraft launched before Pioneer 10 in 1972, many Soviet moon and Venus missions and some recent microsatellites. Illustrations not to scale.

About the author: Raven Weber

Musicaholic. Unapologetic alcohol maven. Social media expert. Award-winning coffee evangelist. Typical thinker.

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