Solar system

Where spacecraft go to die

14 September 2017

An icon hinting users to swipe downward.

Cassini breaks up as it plunges into Saturn.

Credit: NASA/JPL

On 15 September, NASA's Cassini spacecraft will conclude a nearly 20-year-long mission by diving into Saturn’s atmosphere. The heat and speed of entry will rip apart and vaporize the 2-ton probe, but it will gather data for as long as it can—a fitting finish for a mission that transformed our knowledge of the saturnian system.

Cassini’s demise was intentional. If it were left to orbit around Saturn, it may have one day crashed into the moons Titan or Enceladus, potentially contaminating their liquid oceans with earthly microbes. But other missions have had far less happy farewells.

Here, Science takes a look at the 42 spacecraft that, intentionally or not, have met their end on another planet.

Into the great beyond

Dozens of spacecraft have been sent out across the solar system. Many still orbit their target worlds. But 42 are known to have final resting places on other planets. Where did these robotic explorers go? Who sent them? And how did they die?

Messenger was intentionally crashed into Mercury in 2015.

Credit: NASA/JPL, adapted by A. Cuadra/Science

Nearest neighbors

Because they are close to Earth, Venus and Mars harbor large numbers of dead landers.

  • Final resting places

    Scientists know the locations of just about all of the dead spacecraft. Next, we take a look at each of them.

    In 2016, Schiaparelli crashed trying to land on Mars.

    Credit: ESA/ATG medialab, adapted by A. Cuadra/Science


  • U.S.

  • U.K.

  • Europe

  • U.S.S.R.

  • An icon hinting users to rotate the globe and click on points.
    An illustration of the spacecraft. An icon hinting users to swipe left and right.

  • Producers: Garvin Grullón, Jia You   Supervising producers: Alberto Cuadra, Beth Rakouskas   Design, graphics, and data visualization: Alberto Cuadra, Garvin Grullón, Jia You, Val Altounian   Web development: Jia You   Research: Giorgia Guglielmi   Text: Daniel Clery   Editor: Eric Hand