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Our Story

Celebrating 40 Years of Space for Everyone

Our story begins with an observation. Planetary Society founders Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman saw that people of all walks of life are fascinated by the cosmos—yet space exploration budgets waned. This disconnect sparked the idea for a movement that would unite and represent people from around the world in support of space science and exploration.

This is how The Planetary Society came to be.

For nearly 4 decades, our members have made strides in advancing planetary exploration, planetary defense, and the search for life beyond Earth. We have delivered tens of thousands of petitions to the United States Congress. We have funded groundbreaking technological advancements in solar sailing. We have united researchers from around the world to work together on asteroid defense. Today we are the world’s largest and most influential independent space-interest organization.

“By harnessing our collective passion, we can change the course of history.”
- Bill Nye, CEO of The Planetary Society

Here are some of the most remarkable achievements fueled by our members and supporters over the past 40 years.

Download Timeline PDF

The Planetary Society founders at table
1979

Bruce Murray, Carl Sagan, and Louis D. Friedman create The Planetary Society to prove public support for planetary exploration.

First issue of The Planetary Report
1980

Planetary Society members begin funding SETI and exoplanet research.

First issue of The Planetary Report magazine is published in December 1980. All issues of The Planetary Report can be found on planetary.org.

looking through telescope
1982

Members begin funding Eleanor “Glo” Helin’s Near-Earth Object observation, and continue to support her work for more than a decade.

First issue of The Planetary Report
1984

The Planetary Society begins advocacy for international cooperation in planetary exploration by organizing US/USSR meeting in Graz, Austria.

report cover
1985

Paul Horowitz, Carl Sagan, and Steven Spielberg along with his son, Max, activate project META, a Society-sponsored, radio signal-based search for extraterrestrial intelligence, at Harvard’s Oak Ridge Observatory.

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1987

Planetary Society members enable Spacebridge, a televised event bringing together American and Soviet space scientists via satellite to explore cooperative human and robotic exploration of space.

earth
1989

Society membership reaches all-time high of 125,000 members in over 80 nations, including 10,000 in Canada, 1,500 in Australia, and 500 in the UK.

Mars Balloon
1990

Planetary Society members support desert testing of the Mars Balloon, slated to fly on the Soviet Mars ‘96 mission. Although the mission was canceled, the Mars Balloon effort led to the Society’s role in helping to develop rover technology

rover testing
1992

Society sponsors Mars rover tests in California’s Death Valley.

spacecraft over Mars
1993

NASA’s Mars exploration effort accelerates with selection of the Mars Pathfinder mission.

looking at rocks
1995

Planetary Society leads first member expedition to Belize to search for evidence of the Chixculub impact that led to the end of the Cretaceous period.

First confirmation of an exoplanet orbiting a Sun-like star. The Society’s long-term support for exoplanet research advanced the field to the point where we can detect and confirm exoplanets. To date, thousands of exoplanets have been confirmed.

SEO grant recipient by telescope
1997

First Mars rover, Sojourner (named through a Planetary Society contest), lands safely on Mars. On board Mars Pathfinder is a “microdot” with the names of 100,000 Planetary Society members.

Shoemaker NEO Grants debut to fund astronomers seeking asteroids that threaten Earth. To date, Society members have funded 56 grants over 20 years totaling $382,000.

holding the Mars microphone
1999

The Mars Microphone, funded entirely by Planetary Society members, launches to Mars aboard the Mars Polar Lander, but the lander does not survive landing.

Seed funding begins for SETI@home, the most successful public participation project in history! Millions of people worldwide have contributed their computer time to the search for a signal from intelligent beings in the depths of space.

Mat Kaplan
2002

Planetary Radio, the Society’s weekly radio show hosted by Mat Kaplan, premieres. The show’s 17 years of archives are on planetary.org

student with Mars rover
2004

Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity—named through a Planetary Society contest—land on Mars. Sixteen students from our Red Rover Goes to Mars program go to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and work in mission operations. One of these students grew up and became Deputy Project Scientist for the rovers.

Cassini arrives at Saturn; a sweet victory after two decades of Planetary Society advocacy. The Cassini orbiter carried a mini-DVD containing handwritten signatures of Planetary Society members and supporters.

Cosmos 1
2005

The Planetary Society’s Cosmos 1, the world’s first solar sail mission, launches from a Russian Volna rocket. The spacecraft never made it to orbit due to a rocket failure.

optical SETI telescope
2006

The Planetary Society begins sponsoring the first dedicated Optical SETI Telescope in partnership with Harvard University.

Phoenix on Mars
2007

The Phoenix spacecraft lands on Mars with TPS’s archival disc containing names of Planetary Society members and Visions of Mars, the first “library” on Mars, including notable fiction and nonfiction books, artwork, and essays about Mars.

working on FINDS Exo-Earth
2009

The Society co-sponsored the first Planetary Defense Conference in Granada, Spain. To date, we have co-sponsored conferences in Bucharest, Romania; Flagstaff, Arizona; Frascati, Italy; Tokyo, Japan; and Washington, D.C.

Funding begins for FINDS Exo-Earths with Debra Fischer. Planetary Society members helped exoplanet hunters improve the way we search for other worlds.

Lou Friedman and Bill Nye
2010

Society members begin funding an asteroid deflection method named Mirror Bees, later to be known as Laser Bees.

Louis D. Friedman retires as Executive Director and Bill Nye takes the helm as CEO

astronauts on ISS
2011

LIFE microorganisms are tested on shuttle Endeavour’s last flight. Later in 2011, the LIFE capsule launched aboard Russia’s Phobos Grunt mission, but a rocket failure led to the spacecraft reentering Earth’s atmosphere and crashing in the Pacific Ocean.

Pioneer spacecraft illustration
2012

Pioneer Anomaly solved. Thanks to the support of Planetary Society members, scientists solved a solar system mystery that perplexed people for more than 20 years.

Exoplanet Laser on workbench
2014

Funding begins for the Exoplanet Laser, a cutting-edge calibration system for telescope spectrographs to help in the search for other worlds.

LightSail 1 with Sun
2015

After decades of Planetary Society advocacy, NASA officially commits to a dedicated Europa mission.

New Horizons encounters Pluto after years of advocacy efforts. Planetary Society member names are onboard the spacecraft.

Planetary Deep Drill, an innovative Society-sponsored technology for planetary core sampling, is tested in a gypsum quarry.

The Planetary Society’s solar spacecraft LightSail® 1 completes its successful test flight.

Mars 2020 rover
2016

NASA announces that two microphones will fly on the Mars 2020 Rover. The Planetary Society began advocating for, and working on, early Mars microphones beginning in 1996.

Bill Nye holding LightSail model
2017

The Society helps form the influential Planetary Science Caucus with members of the 115th Congress of the U.S.

PlanetVac testing
2018

Testing for PlanetVac, an innovative Society-sponsored surface collection method, began in California’s Mojave Desert. NASA has since selected PlanetVac for inclusion on a future lunar mission.

LightSail 2
2019

Planetary Society organizes first annual Day of Action, where 100 members from 25 US states met with congressional officials to show their support for space exploration.

LightSail® 2, our greatest shared achievement, is the first small spacecraft to demonstrate solar sailing. The mission, which helps pave the way for future solar sailing, was funded entirely by Planetary Society members and supporters.

HD10180 system art
FUTURE

For 40 years, dedicated members like you have been shaping our future in space. Working together, there is no limit to what we can do!

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