It starts with hope and ends with perseverance.
Three spacecraft, carrying the ambitions and anxieties of space agencies from three different countries, are arriving on Mars this month, starting with scientists ’hopes that the red planet could be a new wave of discovery.
The boom began on Tuesday when the UAE Hope probe was orbiting Mars, making the UAE only the fifth nation or organization to achieve such feats. In less than 24 hours, an orbiting and rover launched by the Chinese space agency is expected to arrive on the red planet. And NASA’s Perseverance rover, the much-anticipated follow-up to the Curiosity rover, will attempt to touch the Martian surface on Feb. 18.
The events will not only be a busy month for Mars, but will also shed light on how the space exploration field – which has long been dominated by the United States and Russia – is evolving.
“It’s almost like the Olympics because it’s competitive, but it evokes good feelings,” said Robert Zubrin, author of The Case for Mars and founder of The Mars Society, a nonprofit that supports human discovery of the red planet.
The history of NASA’s Mars robot exploration dates back more than 50 years, but both the UAE and China are trying to set milestones on their first missions to the red planet. With Tuesday’s successful maneuver of the Hope probe, the UAE became the fifth nation or organization to successfully launch a spacecraft into orbit around Mars. China is also bidding to join these exclusive lines, which are currently owned by the United States, the former Soviet Union, the European Space Agency, and India.
“It’s remarkable, and the better, the better,” Zubrin said. “The more players there are, the more discoveries there will be.”
And the resulting discoveries can be monumental. Both the Chinese Tianwen-1 mission and NASA’s Perseverance rover were designed to look for signs of ancient life on Mars. Studying the geology of Mars and hunting for fossilized microbial life on the planet could also result in important scientific discoveries near home.
Thomas Zurbuchen, co-administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement that the Perseverance rover has the opportunity to “examine one of humanity’s most important and exciting questions about the origin of life on Earth and other planets as well”.
But missions to Mars are a big challenge, from months of encounters lasting hundreds of millions of miles to encounters with the red planet.
The UAE Hope spacecraft, which launched in July 2020, arrived on Mars on Tuesday afternoon at around 10 p.m. The SUV-sized probe performed a series of strategic engine burns to slow down as the spacecraft slid into orbit around Mars.
Sarah Al Amiri, President of the United Arab Emirates Space Agency and Minister of State for Advanced Technologies, called this complex maneuver the “most challenging phase” of the mission. He said the engine had been “tried hard” to burn, but acknowledged the high failure of previous missions on Mars.
“From the first day of working with the mission, we understood that the statistics only manage to orbit Mars,” Al Amiri said at a Feb. 1 webinar organized by The Planetary Society and US-UAE Business. Council, a Washington-based trade organization
The UAE has built a spacecraft at the University of Colorado, Boulder, designed to study the atmosphere of Mars. If the more than $ 200 million mission is successful, it could serve as an important model for other small countries, Zubrin said.
“It shows that this is an activity in which any nation can participate – it doesn’t have to be a great power,” he said.
On the other hand, China has rapidly further developed its space program in a few decades. Some details of the Tianwen-1 mission have not been made public, but the orbiter and rover are expected to reach Mars on Wednesday.
“The United States began the discovery of Mars with a number of Mars flights, then orbits, then static landings, and then rovers,” Zubrin said. “China is doing all this at once during their first mission. It’s a very bold thing. They literally break into the stage of the discovery of Mars.
The Tianwen-1 orbit was designed to surround the red planet and map the Martian surface with a radar instrument capable of measuring soil and water-ice properties. China will then attempt to deliver the rover on Mars sometime in May.
For the first time, however, NASA’s Perseverance rover arrives on Mars on February 18 to end the busy month. The car-sized robot researcher, which launched in late July 2020, is equipped with seven scientific instruments to study the geology and climate of Mars.
The rover is trying to touch the red planet with a similar sky crane that sank the Curiosity rover to the Martian surface in 2012. At the time, the nerve-wracking stunt was called “seven minutes of terror”.
NASA says the endurance mission could lay the groundwork for future human discovery of Mars.
In addition to looking for signs of ancient life, the $ 3 billion Endurance Mission is testing innovative technologies on the red planet. The rover carries a small helicopter designed to perform experimental test flights in the thin atmosphere of Mars.
If successful, this will be a milestone in motorized aviation and could open a new era in the discovery of the red planet.
“There’s just no comparison between the excellent capabilities of surface rovers and aircraft,” Zubrin said. “Rovers can do a few hundred meters a day, but a helicopter can do it in a matter of seconds. Imagine being able to walk through any terrain, go into canyons, land below, and then fly out of it. It’s fantastic what this can do to explore Mars.