mars mission

The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 30. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Racing to the Red Planet: Three missions underway to Mars

They are expected to reach their destination sometime in February, 2021.

mars mission

The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 30. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mars has captured human imagination for centuries. Now, three countries have successfully launched robotic emissaries to the red planet, hoping to start new chapters of exploration there.

The United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) launched their Hope orbiter on July 19, followed by the Chinese Tianwen-1 rover on July 23, and NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover on July 30.

The two rovers are heading for parts of Mars that have never been explored, and the UAE’s orbiter will track the changing Martian atmosphere.

Among the three, Tianwen-1 is the most sophisticated, aiming to complete orbiting, landing and roving in one mission.

They are expected to reach their destination sometime in February, 2021. 

The three countries are taking advantage of Mars’ launch “window,” between mid-July and mid-August, which is the most fuel-efficient route, and only happens every 26 months.

Scientists say that during this time, Earth and Mars are orbiting in a relatively short distance from each other.

Each mission a pioneer in its own right

The UAE launched an orbiter — the first interplanetary mission by any Arab nation — as a test of its young but ambitious space agency.

China aims to build on its lunar-exploration successes by taking one of its rovers to Mars for the first time. 

The United States is sending its fifth rover, NASA’s most capable ever, in the hope of finding evidence of past life on Mars and collecting a set of rocks that will one day be the first samples flown back to Earth.

NASA’s hunt for rocks

NASA hopes that its mission to Mars — a six-wheeled, three-metre-long rover named Perseverance — will be the start of a much bigger journey. 

If all goes to plan, Perseverance will extract and store samples of Martian rocks that a future mission will one day pick up and bring back to Earth, possibly by 2031. 

It would be the first-ever sample return from Mars.

Most significantly, Perseverance represents the best chance yet for scientists to learn whether life ever arose on the red planet. If it collects the right kinds of rock, then scientists in laboratories back on Earth might be able to tease out signatures of Martian life.

“This mission gives us the first opportunity to take fundamental questions about whether there was or wasn’t life on Mars to the next level.”

Sherry Cady, astrobiologist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Sequim, Washington.

UAE’s interplanetary Hope

The UAE’s Hope orbiter is a cooperation with three American universities: the University of Colorado (Boulder), the University of California (Berkeley) and Arizona State University. 

If successful, the Emirates Mars Mission (EMM) will not only mark the first interplanetary venture of any Arab nation, but also produce the first global weather map of Mars.

Although previous probes built up a picture of the planet’s atmosphere from orbits that allowed them to monitor each part of the planet at limited times of day, Hope’s huge elliptical orbit will enable the orbiter to observe big chunks of Mars under both day- and night-time conditions, covering almost the entire planet in each 55-hour orbit. 

“We’ll be able to cover all of Mars, through all times of day, through an entire Martian year.”

Sarah Al Amiri, science lead for the Hope project and the UAE’s Ministry for Advanced Sciences.

The Amal or Hope orbiter consists of three instruments and its objectives are to search for the relationship between current weather on Mars as compared to the ancient climate of the red planet.

It’s also to investigate the lost atmospheric mechanisms by tracking the behaviour and escape of hydrogen and oxygen and to study how the lower and upper levels of the Martian atmosphere are connected.

It further hopes to generate a globalised picture on how the Martian atmosphere varies throughout the day, and year.

China’s Mars debut

The Chinese mission, named Tianwen-1, which means ‘quest for heavenly truth,’ will be China’s deepest probe into space.

Tianwen-1 has an orbiter, lander and rover packed with 13 scientific instruments.

When it arrives, in February next year, the mission aims to conduct a comprehensive survey of the planet’s atmosphere, internal structures and surface environment — including searching for the presence of water and signs of life.

Artist impression of Tianwen-1 on Mars.

Once the combined craft reaches Mars, the hexagonal orbiter will release the lander and rover — protected by a spherical cone — into the Martian atmosphere. 

The Chinese team has identified two potential landing areas north of the equator on the plains of Utopia Planitia, according to a presentation made by Wei Yan of the National Astronomical Observatories in Beijing, who spoke at the European Planetary Science Congress in Geneva, Switzerland, last September.

The orbiter is fitted with seven instruments, and the rover with six. 

The subsurface radar on the orbiter can peer 100 metres deep to map geological structures and search for water and ice. Medium- and high-resolution cameras will collect images of features such as dunes, glaciers and volcanoes, providing clues to how they formed. 

Both the orbiter and rover will carry spectrometers to study the composition of soil and rocks, looking especially for evidence of how water has altered geological features. 

The team also plans to collect atmospheric data on temperature, air pressure, wind speed and direction, as well as study the magnetic and gravitational fields on Mars.

Mars is notoriously dangerous

It is far from a given that all these missions will make it; Mars is notorious as a graveyard for failed spacecraft. 

About 50 missions have exploited 27 launch windows until the present one. However, most Mars missions have failed, and only in the past twenty years have we been seeing success more than failure. 

But if these three missions make it, they will substantially rewrite scientific understanding of the planet. 

What we know about Mars is a result of the past six decades of intimate exploration with robotic probes. But, now that the geology is intact, corroborating that Mars likely sustained a warmer surface/climate with flowing water, similar characteristics for life on Earth, recent ambitious missions want to investigate that more. 

The Emirati, Chinese, American entourage of robotic explorers, still floating in Martian orbit, will continue to pin out the detailed history of Mars. From their results, the next millennia of exploration will be defined, first robotic, and eventually perhaps, human.