50 trippy years of space trips

By Phil Plait | October 12, 2009 12:02 pm

In October of 1957, the Soviet Union started the Space Age with the launch of Sputnik. Since then, a lot of spacecraft have wended their way through the solar system and beyond. Trying to visualize all those trips can be mind-bending, so what better way to do so then to make a mind-bending graphic?

The good folks at National Geographic have done just that. Check this out:


This clever image displays all the space missions to various bodies. If an object (like the Moon) has a thicker spiral wound around it, then that means it’s been visited more times. Here’s some detail:

This shows a stylized view of the 73 missions that went to the Moon in the past 5 decades, and has some info on each. The original map is zoomable and pannable, so you can spend some time fooling around there. Take a look at the bottom, too, and you’ll find a scaled view of the solar system with spacecraft positions. Look how far away Voyager 1 is! There’s also a static version of the image online, but I’m not sure how legal that copy is. The original artwork is by Sean McNaughton on the National Geographic staff and Samuel Velasco of 5W Infographics.

And may I add, holy cow! 73 missions to the Moon! And more to come. We’re a cool species.

Tip o’ the spacesuit visor to Fark.


Comments (48)

  1. Great, there goes what was shaping up to be a productive day.

    Sorry, I can’t go to that meeting, I am mesmerized by a NatGeo web page…

  2. Wayne

    Thanks much for the link to the original. I just saw the one linked from Fark.

  3. Gamercow

    Has anyone worked out a key? I can figure that:
    dull=failed, bright=successful
    Yellow= NASA
    Red = USSR
    But what about the blue and purple and green?

    Also, whats with the missing rectangle below Jupiter?

  4. Cheyenne

    That’s the coolest thing I have seen in months.

    Hopefully a decade from now we will have a heck of a lot of rings to add to that graphic.

  5. Kim

    I was wondering what the colors meant also. Too bad I’m not a programmer. It would be cool to have an app that shows the path of each mission it took on teh way to its destination. It could only show one or two missions at a time or it would look like a bowl of pasta. But if you could turn ones on and off…….

  6. Max Fagin

    Include the Earth science missions, this would be even cooler.

  7. One Eyed Jack

    I actually expected Voyager to be much further than shown. Is that accurate?

  8. 3. Gamercow Says:

    Also, whats with the missing rectangle below Jupiter?

    My God, it’s full of stars!


  9. Jim


  10. BigBadSis

    WANT!! This would look so cool hanging in my office.

  11. One Eyed Jack, the scale on the bottom gives the accurate distance that the Voyager and Pioneer probes are away, not the lines amongst the planets (i.e. Voyager 1 is about 10 billion miles away).

  12. At some point, the Voyager probes left the solar system without visiting any further bodies, so yes they’re further out and yes it’s accurate.

  13. tacitus

    I’m amazed to find that there have been more missions to Venus than Mars. I guess it’s easy to forget how much interest there was in Venus back in the 60s and 70s, before it was found to be such an inhospitable place.

    One can only imagine how different the space race would have been if we had discovered a habitable planet beneath those Venusian cloud tops.

  14. Jeremy Henderson

    tacitus, it makes sense when you note that Venus comes much closer to Earth than Mars at its closest…about 42 million km, compared to 78 million.

  15. Brian T.

    What isn’t clear to me is the caption “2 successful NASA missions” for the Moon. 2? Really? Correct me if I’m wrong, but Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17 would count as 6 successful missions, wouldn’t you say? Apollo 13 was an exception because things didn’t quite go according to plan, but I wouldn’t count it as a complete failure. Everyone did survive, after all.

  16. tacitus

    Jeremy, yeah, but with all the attention given to Mars in the past 20 years, it’s easy to forget the initial focus was so much on Venus.

  17. Leslie

    Is Voyager still sending back information? Or Pioneer? Was there a reason to send them out into deep space as opposed to crashing them? Just curious.

  18. Leslie,

    I think that the Voyager craft still have power to last until sometime in 2020. Not sure who, if anyone, is still monitoring them though. The Pioneer last broadcast sometime in 2003 as I recall (not sure which one and when in’03).

    And they didn’t crash them because they have a map back to our little planet. Us humans will probably be long gone before it gets to any other solar systems though, so it will be a curious relic. maybe another species will at least know someone else WAS out there?

    Brian T,

    I think those specific 8 lines are the 8 failed NASA mission on the map. If you look at the map, you see a dot on the white line that encompases the full swath of lines that are failed (and perhaps that is another colour code on the map).

  19. Flavio


    The Pioneers sent their last signals years ago; the Voyagers are still alive, and sending back some scientific data.

    I suppose they didn’t crash 1) because their missions were flybys, 2) because their batteries could provide energy for more exploration of the outer solar system (such as the heliopause and the “pale blue dot” pictures)

  20. tacitus

    Voyager and Pioneer have been invaluable for studying the nature of space in the outer solar system — the solar winds, the heliopause, the Sun’s magnetic field, and hopefully, even give a hint or two at conditions in true, interstellar space.

    Also, there was plenty of valuable science done after closest approach to the planets these probes flew by. If they had terminated the missions by sending the probes plunging into a planet or moon, then they would have missed out on a boat load of scientific data, which would have been criminally negligent.

  21. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    AFAIU the Voyagers are still monitored, as they give information on the heliosphere:

    “In 2007, Voyager II passed through the sun’s termination shock.[6] Voyager II actually passed through the termination shock five times because the shock boundary fluctuates in its distance from the sun as a result of fluctuations in solar flare activity; i.e., changes in the ejections of gas and dust from the sun. […] The current mission of the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 space probes includes studying the heliosheath. [Wikipedia on “Heliosphere”]”

    [And while I drafted this, tacitus reminds us that they will also, hopefully, taste interstellar space.]

  22. Sean

    They forgot the Dawn mission.

  23. I didn’t realize there were quite so many missions to Mars and Venus! But this image makes it seem criminally negligent that there has only been one visit to Uranus and Neptune. I know they’re ridiculously far away, but come on… we need something orbiting them!

  24. Leslie

    Thanks for the information! Very fascinating (I’m used to them crashing probes into planets, so I wasn’t sure why they’d let them fly out). I’m still pretty new to all this and I hate asking “stupid” questions, and yet I love learning these new things. I appreciate it.

    I’m excited for New Horizons. Are they planning on sending that out of the solar system after it checks out the Kuniper Belt? I hope it has a good shelf life if that’s the case.

  25. Paul M.

    Leslie – just in case you’re worried, your question wasn’t stupid. There’s lots of knowledgeable people here so keep asking those questions. I’ll bet it’s not just you who learns something new from the answers.

  26. Pisces

    I hear that Dubya was planning a mission to land on the sun…..had it all figgered out. He was gonna go at night :<).


  27. tacitus

    With a little luck, New Horizons will be sent on to rendezvous with more Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) once it has passed Pluto. They haven’t even begun searching for likely targets yet (they begin in 2011) so nothing is guaranteed, but they certainly plan to keep New Horizons going for as long as funding and power allow — at least 5 years after the Pluto encounter.

  28. Charles

    I know you’re not real big on manned missions to Mars, Phil, but I wonder if you’ve ever read Robert Zubrin’s The Case for Mars.

  29. PJE

    I tried looking on the NG website to see if I could purchase that as a poster, but was unable to find any way of buying it. Does anyone have any ideas?


  30. Mike

    I will need some kind of legend to figure out this nonsense.

  31. Has anyone else noticed the effect when you scroll up and down looking at the second picture?

    So cool.

  32. Simmo

    The graphic seems to imply both missions to Mercury were orbiters – Pioneer 10 orbited the sun (and I imagine still does) and flew past Mercury three (?) times. Messenger will be the first probe to actually orbit Mercury but it hasn’t got there yet, flying past and slowing down three times so far.

  33. It is really a very easy way to look through what we human being have done in the outer space.

  34. Zippy the Pinhead

    Is there a way to make the flash full screen?

  35. Pathfinder's Airbag

    This is gorgeous and brilliant and inspiring and I want one to hang on my wall.

  36. D. B.

    The missing rectangle below Jupiter–I wonder if it contains a text box in the print version.

    The labels on the Moon missions–that confused me for a little while, too. However, it’s now clear to me that they’re not saying that NASA had two successful lunar missions total, but merely pointing out those two lines as an example of what two successful NASA Moon missions look like. All lines of that color represent successful NASA missions, as the first commenter correctly pointed out.

    The meaning of the other colors can be deduced from comparing them to a list of recent Moon missions. I’ll do that later today if no one else does, but right now I have to get back to work!

  37. ND

    The green ones are ESA maybe?

  38. Michael Parmeley

    This would be awesome if they would let me pan around in an area bigger than a 6×5 (or so) viewing area. NatGeo can you make the viewing area bigger?

    Great picture, annoying interface!

  39. Chris A.


    “The graphic seems to imply both missions to Mercury were orbiters – Pioneer 10 orbited the sun (and I imagine still does) and flew past Mercury three (?) times. Messenger will be the first probe to actually orbit Mercury but it hasn’t got there yet, flying past and slowing down three times so far.”

    Actually, that was Mariner 10, not Pioneer 10, which flew past Mercury three times (after having flown past Venus once) in 1974-5. And while MESSENGER has flown past Mercury three times, its speed increased as a result of the encounters (to match Mercury’s orbital speed) rather than decreased.

  40. Chris A.

    Another error on the graph: It says that NEAR Shoemaker landed on “443 Eris,” which, of course, should be “443 Eros.”

  41. Chris

    I thought the other colors represented other countries as well, except that the missions to the outer planets, all NASA craft (with the exception of one piggyback), are in the exact same colors. Confusing indeed.

  42. And it’s not even 443, it’s 433! Wow, two mistakes in one!

  43. Martin

    Does anyone know why they haven’t included the Oort cloud? I mean, it lies at the extent of our Sun’s gravitational influence, so it is really the boundary of our Solar System, but it is not mentioned. Only a pointer to inter-stellar space.

  44. Rowan

    Thanks to all the people talking about the heliosphere, I had never heard of it, and now I can’t stop reading about it, it has opened a huge avenue to me! I think I might end up becoming a cosmologist at this rate…

  45. Steverman

    I want to have a copy I can download. They have to put that together for the geeks in us


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