The race to Mars: Why the U.S., China and the UAE are all blasting off to the red planet

The race to Mars: Why the U.S., China and the UAE are all blasting off to the red planet

An armada of exploration brings orbiters, rovers and a helicopter. While Mars may be some time away from human visitors, its robot population continues to swell

Source: National Post

Our solar system has two planets harbouring what might be deemed life. The first is Earth, home to more than 8 million animal species, including the one reading this story. The second is Mars, the only planet in the universe known to be populated entirely by robots.

The second is about to get a lot more crowded.

In the past week, spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates and China lifted off for a six-month journey to the red planet. On July 30, NASA’s latest mission will follow. If all goes well, next February Mars will play host to an additional two orbiters, one lander, two rovers and a helicopter. It’s the largest flotilla ever to make the trip, an armada of exploration.

Spaceships from Earth have been trying to make the dangerous journey to Mars for 60 years, with spotty success, at least in the early going. The first attempt in 1960 ended in a launch failure. So did four of the next five. (The fifth suffered communications failure.)

A Long March-5 rocket, carrying an orbiter, lander and rover as part of the Tianwen-1 mission to Mars, lifts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre in southern China’s Hainan Province on July 23, 2020. NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images

It took until 1965 for NASA’s Mariner to make the first successful flyby. Orbit would not be achieved until the Soviet Union launched Mars 2 in 1971. That same year, Mars 3 made the first “soft landing” — that’s where you don’t crash — but managed to send back only a partial picture before contact was lost less than two minutes later.

Things slowly got better. In 1976, NASA’s twin Vikings soft-landed and sent back pictures and other data. In 1997, the toaster-sized Sojourner became the first rover on another planet, operating for almost three months. 2004 brought Spirit and Opportunity, golf-cart-sized vehicles that lasted for many years. And in 2012 the Curiosity rover, the size of a small car, touched down and is still driving, without so much as an oil change.

Ingenuity Mars Helicopter and NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover in an undated illustration provided by Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout via REUTERS

There are at this moment four other dead rovers on the red planet, as well as nine landers (NASA’s Insight is the only one still working), several crash sites, and 15 orbiting satellites, of which six are still functioning. It’s a busy place, but there’s a lot of ground to cover. Although Mars is just a fraction of Earth’s size, its lack of oceans means the total area is almost exactly that of the land on our planet – take away half of Canada (or two Mexicos) from Earth’s land area, and you’ve got Mars.

Each of the latest missions has a different scientific and political objective. For the Emirates Mars Mission, success would mean the first visit by a West Asian, Arab or Muslim majority country. It would also mark the 50th anniversary of the nation’s independence from Britain. Beyond that, the Hope orbiter would spend at least two years studying the Martian climate, a complicated system that includes ice caps, water vapour and clouds in the thin, mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere.

An artist’s conception of Perserverance at work on Mars. NASA

China’s Tianwen-1 mission is even more ambitious, comprising an orbiter, a lander and a rover. Taking its name from Tianwen (The Heavenly Questions), an epic poem written more than 2,200 years ago by Qu Yuan, the orbiting spacecraft will include a high-resolution camera, ground-penetrating radar, a spectrometer, a magnetometer and several particle analyzers, with the aim of teasing out more information about the surface, subsurface and atmosphere.

The unnamed rover – China recently announced a global campaign to give it a name – will roll off the lander in a region of Mars called Utopia Planetia, where scientists believe there is a subsurface reservoir of ice containing as much water as Lake Superior. It too will carry cameras and radar as well as weather monitoring equipment. The rover is expected to function for 90 days, but previous vehicles have performed better than projected, in part because occasional wind storms serve to blow dust off the solar panels.

Staff monitor the progress of the Hope Probe in the mission control room at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. The UAE successfully launched its Mars Hope probe from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center using a Japanese rocket on July 19.  Christopher Pike/Bloomberg

Then there’s NASA’s newest mission, scheduled to lift off from Cape Canaveral in Florida on July 30 at 7:50 a.m. ET. (The launch window extends until mid-August.) Hitching a ride on the bottom of the rover Perseverance is a miniature helicopter called Ingenuity. Weighing in at just 1.8 kg (or less than 700 grams in the lower gravity of Mars), Ingenuity aims to be the first aircraft to fly on another planet.

Perseverance looks a lot like Curiosity but carries a new range of instruments, including additional cameras and the ability to cache rock samples for eventual return to Earth on a future mission, tentatively planned for a 2026 liftoff. Orbital mechanics mean that an ideal launch window for Mars opens once every 26 months, which is why so many ships are leaving at the same time.

NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover is nestled in the nose of an Atlas V rocket, scheduled for liftoff July 30. Joel Kowsky / NASA

In the meantime, Russia is planning a 2022 launch of ExoMars. The mission was originally scheduled for launch this year until problems with parachutes and electronics convinced scientists to perform additional tests.

The 2026 mission will include an orbiter, another lander with a small rocket that can return the samples to earth, and another rover to make the transfer of samples. Mars may be some time away from human visitors, but its robot population continues to swell.

Employees pass a sign board displaying an image of Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Dubai’s ruler, at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. Christopher Pike/Bloomberg

Source: National Post

David Aragorn

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