The race for the Red Planet is on — no less than three spaceships are travelling at thousands of miles per hour, as you read this.
Scientists say they are on their way to Mars in search of alien life and to better understand the atmosphere and environment of our nearest planetary neighbor.
The 2020s and 2030s will be the Mars decades, with multiple uncrewed missions due to launch and even retrieve and bring back rock samples.
Each of the missions will be a precursor to future, more adventurous Mars trips, with the ultimate aim of putting humans on the Red Planet by the end of the 2030s.
Billionaire Elon Musk might even be first, if his Starship program goes as planned — without a crew by 2024 and crewed by 2027.
All that is true, of course, but much like America’s effort to beat the Soviets to the moon, it’s also about winning the technological race — here, China is the dark horse that is coming on strong, while the US is trying to rediscover its decades old leadership in space.
President John F. Kennedy was so worried about the Soviets getting ahead of America, that he vowed to land a man on the moon before the decades was out.
This was achieved, but at great cost.
Three astronauts lost their lives, during an Apollo test that went terribly wrong. As Musk once said, “Space is hard,” and Mars will be even harder.
“Mars has moved into the symbolic role of demonstrating the superiority of technology,” Alice Gorman, an associate professor at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, told Bloomberg in an interview.
Clearly, space has taken on greater strategic, economic and military importance, as the great powers look at the possibilities beyond the planet.
Who are the participant nations in the exploration of Mars?
According to a report in the UK’s Daily Mail, orbiter missions from the United Arab Emirates, as well as rovers from the Chinese and American space agencies are due to arrive by the middle of February.
The NASA mission is the largest, sending the next generation of rover that will follow in the footsteps of Curiosity.
The Hope Mars mission is the first Arab satellite to be sent to another planet, and will send Martian weather forecasts back — as it will track a full weather cycle, Mail online reported.
The China spaceship is the first fully Chinese Mars mission, including launching on its own rocket, and will be only the second country to land a rover after the US.
The US$2.7-billion, plutonium-powered Perseverance rover follows in a long line of US rovers that have been sent to explore the Red Planet, including the currently-operational Curiosity rover, Mail online reported.
As well as a host of scientific instruments, the NASA spaceship is “festooned” with an array of “hidden gems” including chips carrying the names of 10.9 million people.
The “extras” are part of a tradition that harks back to the early space race — including a plaque on Pioneer 10 and 11 displaying a man and a woman, Mail online reported.
The precursor to Perseverance — NASA Curiosity — includes a 1909 penny that nods not just to the hundredth anniversary of the Lincoln penny, but also to how geologists often include a penny for scale when analysing images of rock features.
“These embelishments add artistic elements on missions that are otherwise solely dominated by science and technology,” says Jim Bell of Arizona State University.
Bell is the principal investigator of Perseverance’s Mastcam-Z, a pair of zoomable cameras that will capture colour panoramas of the Martian surface.
Once Perseverance touches down, engineers will spend around 90 days remotely checking all of its systems to make sure they’re in working order.
The rover probably won’t begin rolling in earnest until May, when it will strike out to explore Jezero Crater, which lies about 3,750 kilometres from Curiosity’s landing site.
If Martian life ever existed, Jezero’s carbonates are a good place to look for it. “We’ve not explored an environment like this before,” says Tanja Bosak, a geobiologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
Evidence of life could come in the form of actual fossils, or in chemical or geological signatures of organisms that once lived in the rocks.
Subsequent missions, currently under consideration by NASA in cooperation with the European Space Agency, would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these cached samples from the surface and return them to Earth for analysis.
Those future plans could be aided by knowing what the weather is like on Mars over a full day — which is something the Emirates Mars Mission (EMM) sets out to achieve.
This is the first interplanetary mission by an Arab nation, and it has now completed its final major trajectory correction before inserting itself into Mars’ orbit in February, Mail online reported.
Known as Mars Hope, the probe’s arrival and Mars Orbit Insertion (MOI) on February 9 will mean the United Arab Emirates becomes the fifth nation to reach the planet.
Project Director Omran Sharaf said they will use the on-board spectrograph to make early observations of Mars’ outer hydrogen halo and add data to interplanetary modelling.
Given the spacecraft’s smooth sailing, the Hope mission is now targeting three different types of “bonus” observations before safely arriving at Mars.
One of those extra observations will see the spacecraft team up with BepiColombo, a joint European-Japanese mission to visit Mercury that launched in October 2018 to begin a seven-year cruise to the solar system’s innermost planet.
In a carefully choreographed maneuver across a swath of the inner solar system, the two spacecraft will turn to point at each other, and both probes will measure the amount of hydrogen in the stretch of space between them, Space.com reported.
Then, each spacecraft will pirouette to take the same measurement facing outward across the solar system.
There is far less publicly-available information about the Chinese Tianwen-1 mission, launched by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) on July 23, 2020.
It is due to reach the Red Planet at some point in February and includes an orbiter, a lander and a rover that will look for ancient signs of life on Mars, Mail online reported.
Tianwen-1 looks a lot like NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers from the 2000s. It weighs some 240kg and is powered by fold-out solar panels.
A tall mast carries cameras to take pictures and aid navigation; five additional instruments will help assess the mineralogy of local rocks and look for any water-ice.
This surface investigation is really only half the mission, however, because the cruise ship that is shepherding the rover to Mars will also study the planet from orbit.
Tianwen-1 will use a combination of a capsule, parachute and a retro-rocket to burn off entry speed and slow itself to a stop right at the surface.
If all goes well, the landing mechanism will then deploy a ramp to enable the rover to begin its traverse across the Martian plain.
Chinese scientists would like to get at least 90 Martian days of service out of the robot. A day, or Sol, on Mars lasts 24 hours and 39 minutes.
CNSA has confirmed that the lander will touch down inside the huge impact basin Utopia Planitia, to the south of NASA’s Viking 2 lander site.
China in recent years has emerged as a major space power with manned space missions and landing a rover on the dark side of the moon. It is currently building a space station of its own.
It also has not signed the Artemis Accords, an international agreement to allow countries or companies to establish exclusive zones on the moon for future enterprises, such as mining.
So far, the only nations who have signed on are the United Kingdom, Italy, Australia, Canada, Japan, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates and the US.
Sources: Daily Mail, Outlook India, BBC News, Nature.com, Space.com, Bloomberg