Did you know Mars has a busy season? In July three new Mars missions, from different countries, launched from Earth in just 11 days.
The United Arab Emirates launched its Mars Hope mission on 19 July, China launched the Tianwen-1 mission on 23 July, and the United States launched their latest rover Perseverance on 30 July. Each of these missions is currently en route to Mars on a journey through deep space that takes roughly seven months.
When they arrive, in February 2021, they will join the 6 orbiters and 2 landers already on the surface, expanding the robotic population of Mars from 8 to 11.
Why so many Mars missions?
Earth and Mars may be neighbouring worlds, but the distance between our two planets differs greatly throughout the year. Mars moves slower within its orbit compared to Earth.
Mars takes almost double the time it takes Earth to orbit the Sun, at 687 days. It also has a far more elliptical orbit than Earth, meaning its distance to the Sun differs much more than Earth’s throughout its year. Because Mars takes almost twice as long to orbit the Sun compared to Earth, roughly every two years our planets align as Earth overtakes Mars. This is the optimal time to send spacecraft to Mars.
This short launch window only lasts for a few weeks every two years while our planets are close. If the window is missed, it means a wait of another two years before any spacecraft can be launched.
The trajectory that spacecraft use during this time is known as the Hofmann transfer orbit. It uses little energy and takes advantage of the proximity between the two bodies – making it the most efficient and cost-effective way to reach the red planet.
Middle East enters the Martian space race
The first of the three missions to be launched – and one of the most ambitious – is the Hope probe from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Hope (Al-Amal in Arabic) mission consists of an orbiter with instruments designed to study the weather, climate and atmosphere of Mars in detail. Hope is the first interplanetary probe ever launched from the Arabic nation or any other Arabic nation for that fact – an impressive feat for a country that is less than 50 years old.
The arrival of Hope in February 2021 will coincide with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UAE, a goal that the country’s space agency says is to inspire young people from the Middle East to pursue careers in science and technology.
Image Credit: UAE
China leads independent Mars mission
China also has its sights on the red planet with its own Tianwen-1 mission. This mission consists of three separate spacecraft; an orbiter, a lander and a rover. This is a first for any country and is China’s first attempt to send an independent mission to Mars after a 2011 mission in collaboration with Russia failed.
In recent years, China has risen to become a leading player in the modern space race. They have launched several successful missions to our Moon since 2007, and most recently landed a rover on the far side of the Moon, becoming the first nation to do so.
China has also constructed its own small space station with many successful missions in low-Earth orbit (LEO). China’s Tianwen-1 builds on the success of these missions, and the success of Tianwen-1 will lead to the planned sample return mission in the 2030s. When Tianwen-1 arrives at Mars in February 2021, it will spend several months refining its orbit before deploying the rover to the surface sometime in April. The rover carries many firsts for China including a ground-penetrating radar expected to map up to 100m under the surface.
Image Credit: CNSA
NASA sends its next robotic pioneer: Perseverance
Perhaps one of the most exciting missions to Mars is the highly anticipated NASA mission, the Perseverance rover. Perseverance (nicknamed ‘Percy’) builds on the very successful Curiosity mission which landed in 2012 and is still active to this day. Percy is the most advanced spacecraft ever sent to Mars and it carries a plethora of scientific instruments and experiment firsts to the red planet.
One instrument known as MOXIE will produce oxygen on the Martian surface for the first time, allowing scientists to prepare for the eventual humans who may soon follow to Mars.
Perseverance is not travelling alone either – it carries a small robotic helicopter known as Ingenuity. This technology demonstration mission is planned to prove that flight in the thin Martian atmosphere is possible. If successful, it will become the first spacecraft to fly on another planet.
The rover is also carrying a sampling catch system to prepare for Mars sample return missions like the one China has planned. It will drill into the Martian soil and collect tubes to be sealed and then left on the surface for a follow-up mission to retrieve and send back to Earth.
Perseverance will land in an area known as Jeziro Crater which was once an ancient lake with flowing rivers and water. It hopes to find evidence of previous life on Mars.
An exciting first for this mission is the number of cameras it carries to Mars; a total of 23! Nine of them will be used for engineering, seven for science and seven for the entry, descent, and landing systems (EDL). The EDL cameras will give us an exciting view from Perseverance as it lands, capturing dozens of angles as it plunges towards Mars in February 2021. It also carries a microphone, so we will be able to hear what the surface of Mars sounds like for the first time.
Image Credit: NASA
Life on Mars coming closer
With all of these missions currently en route, and many more planned for the next launch window, we are now closer than ever to sending the first humans to Mars.
This journey to our neighbouring world is no easy feat, but with each spacecraft we send we’re getting closer to making the trip ourselves within the decades to come. And when we’re ready to send humans to Mars we may finally be able to answer those pressing questions: did life exist on Mars and are we alone?