Launching a rover into space and landing it safely on an alien surface is difficult enough. Then you have to get the thing to actually drive.
Humans put seven rovers on the moon and six on Mars. Since the 1970s, they’ve covered 137 miles. Four of them are still cruising: NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers on Mars, and the China National Space Administration’s (CNSA) Zhurong rover on Mars and Yutu-2 rover on the moon. The Soviet Union was the only other country to land a rover on the moon and Mars.
In the spirit of friendly competition, we’ve ranked the 13 rovers on how far they’ve traveled on the moon and Mars.
Credit: Bob al-greene / mashable
The first rover to make it to the surface of Mars, 1997’s Sojourner weighed just 25 pounds and stood under 11 inches tall. After its seven-month journey through space and deployment on Mars, the rover was active for 83 sols (Mars days), equal to 85 Earth days, and drove a total of 330 feet. It acted as a test for wheel designs and took readings of rock compositions.
Yutu was the China National Space Administration’s first rover mission, landing on the moon in late 2013. Equipped with ground-penetrating radar and instruments to measure soil composition, Yutu only traveled 377 feet before it ceased moving in early 2014. Even though it couldn’t move, it kept collecting data until 2016.
Credit: china national space administration
Launched right around the same time as Perseverance, Zhurong traveled to Mars as part of the China National Space Administration’s Tianwen-1 mission, which also included an orbiter and a lander for the rover. After orbiting the planet for months, Zhurong touched down in May. As it explores an area roughly 1,000 miles away from Perseverance, it’s searching for signs of past life as well as pockets of subterranean ice deposits, which could prove useful in future crewed missions to the red planet.
Yutu-2 landed on the far side of the moon in early 2019 with a similar but improved payload to Yutu and has put in 2,325 feet, or about 0.4 miles, of driving as of May 2021. Yutu-2 is still operating.
Landing in February 2021, NASA’s Perseverance rover has put in just over one mile of distance on the red planet. Exploring an ancient lakebed in the search for evidence of past life, Perseverance is outfitted with a range of instruments for taking pictures, precisely analyzing rocks and soil, and examining both the local atmosphere and geography. Perseverance’s main goal is to prep a sample of the surface to be picked and returned to Earth in a future mission. Percy also brought along the Ingenuity helicopter. Flying through the thin Martian atmosphere, the drone has covered more than a mile in the air.
Landing on Mars in 2004, the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity were part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover mission. Spirit and Opportunity had identical designs with identical cameras and scientific instruments for examining rocks, soil, and dust. Both rovers were designed to last 90 sols, and both exceeded that target. Spirit lasted longer than five Earth years and traveled 4.8 miles before getting stuck.
7. Lunokhod 1
The Lunokhod 1 had the first honor of driving outside Earth when it arrived on the moon in 1970 courtesy of the Soviet space program. Operating for longer than 10 Earth months, it way overshot the three months it was designed for and covered 6.5 miles. Along the way, it beamed photos of the moon back to Earth and gathered data on the soil.
Credit: Getty Images/NASA
Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012 and is still chugging along, racking up 16.2 miles as of early August. Curiosity was designed to search for evidence of past life and examine Mars’ atmosphere and geology. For now, the rover doesn’t show signs of slowing down.
5, 4, 3. Lunar Roving Vehicle
NASA’s first rover to land on the moon was driven by people. From 1971 to 1972, NASA put three Lunar Roving Vehicles on the moon. The astronauts from Apollo 15 drove 17.3 miles. The next one ventured just 16.5 miles. Apollo 17 astronauts pushed the third rover 22.3 miles, cranking the speed up to a record 11.2 miles per hour.
2. Lunokhod 2
The Soviet space program’s second lunar rover touched down on the moon in 1973, and although it only worked for about four months, it managed to clock in 24 miles. Like Lunokhod 1, the sequel sent pictures back to Earth and performed various tests on the moon’s soil. It was the last rover sent by the Soviet space program, the last rover of the ’70s, and the end of the first era of space exploration. There wouldn’t be another rover successfully launched and landed until the ’90s.
After landing on the opposite side of Mars as its twin Spirit, Opportunity made it all the way to 2018. Outshining its fellow rover and all other rovers in history so far, Opportunity clocked the longest distance ever driven by a rover outside of Earth: 28.1 miles.