The astonishing chart of all uncrewed space exploration just got an update with more recent missions. Wandering around the chart is an asking to get lost in memories of past exploration, and dreams of future visits to distant worlds. We've had a lot of robotic explorers investigating space!
Once again, the chart is commissioned by National Geographic, designed by 5W Infographics, coauthored by Sean McNaugton and Matt Twombly. It is massive, so scroll around the high-resolution version. The chart is updated with missions through 2012; any failed missions made it to at least Earth orbit before dying. The carnage of countless missions that exploded during launch would crowd up the chart far too much.
The colour-codes differentiate both the exploring country and the success of the mission. While even the low-resolution version makes our bias for exploring the moon and nearby Venus and Mars obvious compared to the more distant planets, taking a closer look unwraps history.
The chart excludes terrestrial exploration, which is a good thing as our space is crowded enough without trying to track every disco ball balloon that made a few orbits before burning up or breaking down.
The moon was an obvious target, earning a thick band of missions in the 1960s and 1970s as probes proceeded as humans first leaving the planet and reaching an alien world. The bright-coloured bands of orange (NASA) and red (Russia) mark successes, but the duller bands of failed missions in brown (NASA) and maroon (Russia) are a testament to how difficult space missions can be.
In recent decades, new colours join the collection, with the European Space Agency (cyan), Japan (purple), India (blue), and China (green) all conducting successful lunar missions. Those outer two bands in the past few years include the charming Jade Rabbit who managed to survive the long lunar night, and LADEE, the probe that deliberately crashed into the moon. I admit, I'm a little sad to not see her line come spiralling in to crash in the infographic, but considering how busy the moon is, I can understand the simplification.
The Red Planet is a tempting target, but those six minutes of terror when a craft descends through the thin atmosphere destroys a lot of craft. It's easy to revel in the success of the NASA/JPL rover program and overlook just how many other countries have tried and failed to make it to Mars. While Russia had a few early successes, in recent decades on the European Space Agency is the only other group to reach Mars without a catastrophe.
The Outer Planets
Compared to the thick bands surrounding the inner planets, the outer solar system looks downright abandoned. Jupiter collected a scant 8 missions, which is still more than the 5 missions to Saturn. Somehow, more than a decade later Cassini manages to collect more beautiful images of Saturn and the Huygens team develop new visualizations of the descent through Titan's atmosphere, but I know I crave a new mission for the data, and, quite selfishly, for new additions to my high-definition exotic landforms wallpaper collection.
Explore the chart to investigate the robots that have sent home data about the diversity of worlds within reach, and then remember: we're finding ever-more exoplanets every year, expanding the possibilities of what makes a planet.