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Top 10 Space Missions to Other Planets


Script written by Nick Roffey

These missions mark our first interplanetary steps out into the universe. From New Horizons, to MESSENGER, to Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, these missions pushed the boundaries of what we thought possible. WatchMojo counts down the Top 10 Space Missions to Other Planets.

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Script written by Nick Roffey

Top 10 Space Missions to Other Planets


These missions mark our first interplanetary steps out into the universe. Welcome to Watchmojo.com, and today we're counting down our picks for the top 10 space missions to other planets. For this list, we're looking at missions and programs that have flown by, orbited, or landed on planets and dwarf planets.

#10: New Horizons

Poor old Pluto hasn’t received a lot of love. Spinning at the edge of the solar system, it was first noticed only in 1930, and demoted to “dwarf planet” in 2006. But thanks to New Horizons, at least we can say we’ve visited. In 2015, NASA’s unmanned spacecraft was the first to drop in on our distant neighbour. On the way, it received a gravity assist from Jupiter, capturing a colossal eruption on its moon, Io. Its flyby of Pluto revealed a shockingly youthful surface that suggests recent geological activity, and hills of water ice that float in frozen nitrogen seas. And the craft isn’t finished, currently forging onward deeper into the Kuiper Belt.

#9: MESSENGER


Hurtling through space in the opposite direction to New Horizons, NASA’s probe MESSENGER became, in 2011, the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury. In 1974, Mariner 10 had flown by the little-explored, innermost planet, but MESSENGER was able to return much more detail - mapping more of the surface, revealing evidence of an immense, liquid iron core, and confirming the suspected presence of water ice in the shadows of craters at the north pole. The craft met a fiery end when it was intentionally crashed into the planet’s surface, but blazed a trail for future missions, such as upcoming European and Japanese mission “BepiColombo”.

#8: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has become integral in our ongoing exploration of the Red Planet. Since reaching Mars in 2006, the craft has been mapping the planet’s surface using high-resolution orbital cameras, conducting reconnaissance for landing sites, and hunting for liquid water. In 2011, it detected seasonal flows of liquid water on Mars’ surface. Able to beam back information at unprecedented speeds, the orbiter has provided us with more data than all other planetary probes combined, and together with fellow orbiter Mars Odyssey, acts as a telecommunications relay for landers and rovers.

#7: Mars Exploration Rover: Spirit and Opportunity

It’s one thing to watch Mars from afar. But how about driving around on the surface? In 1997, NASA’s spacecraft Mars Pathfinder landed Sojourner, the first rover to operate on another planet, and a proof-of-concept mission that paved the way for the more advanced rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Landed in 2004, their intrepid adventures on Martian soil have been watched all over the world, with the robotic geologists providing stunning visuals of the surface, and further evidence of ancient volcanism and liquid water. Easily outliving their planned 90 day mission, plucky Spirit trundled on for five years, and Opportunity - joined on the surface in 2012 by big brother Curiosity - is still going strong.

#6: Pioneer 10 and 11

When Pioneer 10 crossed the asteroid belt beyond Mars, it entered uncharted territory. Launched in 1972, the interplanetary pilgrim was the first to flyby Jupiter, imaging the planet and its moons, and discovering that its interior is largely fluid. A year later, its sister ship Pioneer 11 also passed the gas giant, sending back detailed images of the Great Red Spot, before becoming the first manmade object to encounter Saturn - and feeling out the road for the soon-to-arrive Voyager missions. Both Pioneers now drift beyond the planets’ orbits, “ghost ships” that bear a gold plaque with our location and anatomies for potential extraterrestrial discoverers.

#5: Mariner 4

At the dawn of the space age, the Mariner program accomplished an impressive lists of firsts - including the first planetary flyby in 1962, when Mariner 2 passed Venus. Spurred on by the space race, with the Soviets' sights set on Mars, NASA’s Mariner 4 beat the competition to become the first successful mission to the Red Planet, flying by in 1965, providing our first close-up look at the surface - images that revealed a barren, cratered world very different from the popular images of science-fiction. If there was water or life on Mars, we would have to search for it. It was a revelatory and revolutionary mission that set the parameters for future exploration.

#4: Venera 7

The Soviets had been the first to land a spacecraft on the moon, in 1966. In 1970, they were also the first to land on another planet. As Venera 7 drifted down toward the scorched, hellish surface of Venus, its parachute ripped and collapsed, and it freefell for 29 minutes. But the hardy probe survived, and transmitted valuable data back to Earth. It was the first manmade object to ever land on another planet. Subsequent Venera missions had smoother landings, and in 1975, Venera 9 beamed back our first images of another planet’s surface.

#3: Cassini-Huygens

What it would be like to fly behind Saturn’s rings? Where did they come from? And what secrets hide inside its many moons? These were the ambitious questions behind Cassini-Huygens, a landmark collaboration between US and European space agencies. From 2004 on, the Cassini orbiter examined Saturn’s rings, uncovered seven new moons, and discovered evidence for an internal ocean in the moon Enceladus - the source of Saturn’s E Ring. Cassini’s lander Huygens also revealed liquid methane lakes and rivers on the moon Titan. The mission was a triumph, and in 2017, the orbiter went down down in a blaze of glory - burnt up in Saturn’s atmosphere to avoid contaminating its moons.

#2: Viking 1 and 2

Thanks to the Mariner missions, we had watched Mars from above. It was time to explore the surface. The Soviets’ Mars 3 had soft landed in 1971, but broke down within seconds inside a global dust storm. So when NASA’s Viking 1 lander touched down on Martial soil in 1976, it became the first to successfully operate on Mars - and returned our first clear ground-level images. Its tests for life returned ambiguous results, as did those of Viking 2, landed just months later. But the Viking orbiters discovered ancient river and lake beds, keeping hope alive. It would be two decades before another successful landing - when NASA’s Mars Pathfinder delivered the rover Sojourner.
Before we reveal the identity of our top pick, here are some honorable mentions:
Dawn (Vesta and Ceres)
Galileo (Jupiter)
Magellan (Venus)

#1: Voyager 1 and 2

Their epic odyssey took them through - and beyond - our solar system. Launched in 1977, NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 returned revolutionary data on the outer planets - discovering Jupiter’s rings, volcanism on its moon Io, and the first signs of a subsurface ocean inside Europa. The Voyagers then studied the complex structure of Saturn’s rings and the enigmatic atmosphere of its moon Titan. While Voyager 2 became the first and only spacecraft to flyby Uranus and Neptune, Voyager 1 headed straight for interstellar space - becoming in 2012 the first spacecraft to enter the great unknown beyond our solar system.

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