Shortly after 10:15 p.m. this past Monday, the mission sent by the United Arab Emirates, the first of an Arab country, entered the orbit of the red planet. It did so after carrying out a complex braking maneuver in order to be captured by the planet’s gravity.
And in the next few days, two more space probes are expected to arrive to study its geology, its atmosphere and look for possible signs of life, such as bacteria. Next up will be China’s Tianwen-1 mission, scheduled to arrive this week, and NASA’s Perseverance will land on February 18.
Why three missions in February?
The closeness of the date is due to the fact that the three missions took advantage of a “window” that occurs every so often in which the distance between Mars and Earth is less. The separation between the two planets is constantly changing due to their different speeds when they orbit the Sun. So the best time to launch missions that require the least amount of fuel occurs once every 26 months.
But as with any mission to Mars, all three spacecraft face tremendous challenges, including the infamous “seven minutes of terror.” This is the time it takes for a spacecraft to descend from the top of the planet’s atmosphere to the ground. Half of all previous missions to the red planet ended in failure. So how do scientists hope to achieve it this time? And what are they looking to investigate?
The historic first mission of the United Arab Emirates to Mars took off from Japan in July last year. And the success of the maneuver to enter orbit was announced live on television and on social networks by the director of the same, Omran Sharaf, from the operations room of the Mohamed bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai.
The probe will explore the atmosphere of the red planet, something that has not been done in any previous mission to Mars. In particular, scientists believe it may contribute to our understanding of how the planet lost much of its air and, with it, much of its water.
Unlike the Chinese and American missions, Hope will not land on Mars, but instead will stay in orbit around the planet for at least one Martian year, or 687 days. Its data is expected to begin arriving on Earth in September.
This mission is described as a “scientific endeavor”. “It is largely seen as a vehicle of inspiration, something that will attract more young people in the Emirates and throughout the Arab region to study science in school and higher education,” the mission coordinator said.
Only the United States, India, the former Soviet Union and the European Space Agency have reached Mars before successfully. Hope’s arrival coincides with the 50th anniversary of the formation of the United Arab Emirates. Large buildings and landmarks in the country have been lit red at night, government accounts are adorned with a hashtag and images allusive and, on the big day, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest tower in the world, will be the center of a celebratory show.
China also wants to reach Mars
China’s first Mars exploration mission, called “Questions to the Sky,” won’t actually land for another three months. This will allow engineers to assess the planet’s atmospheric conditions before attempting what will be a dangerous descent.
To land on Mars, scientists must face the challenge of reducing the entry speed, which is 20,000 km / h, to almost the speed at which a human walks by the time of “lowering the wheels.”
China expects to land its 240kg device on a plain within the Utopia impact basin in May. The robot, powered by deployable solar panels, will study the geology of the region, on the surface and just below it. A tall mast carries cameras to take pictures and facilitate navigation. Five additional instruments will help assess the mineralogy of local rocks and search for water ice.
Chinese scientists would like the robot to be in service for at least 90 days. So far, only the Americans have managed to carry out long-duration operations on Mars (the Soviet Mars-3 and Beagle-2 missions from Europe were short-lived).
Tianwen-1 has already sent its first image of Mars to Earth: a black and white photo showing geological features such as the Schiaparelli crater and the Marineris valley, a vast strip of canyons on the Martian surface. The image was taken from a distance of 2.2 million kilometers from Mars.
Tianwen-1 is not China’s first attempt to reach Mars. A previous mission with Russia in 2011 ended prematurely when the launch failed. But the country is confident after sending two missions to the Moon. With the second last year, China became the first country to make a successful landing on the “dark side” of our natural satellite.
NASA returns to Mars
NASA’s Perseverance will search for evidence of ancient microbial life on Mars. It will collect rock samples that could provide invaluable clues as to whether there was ever life on the red planet.
The largest and most sophisticated vehicle ever sent to land on another planet is expected to land on Mars shortly before 9:00 p.m. GMT on Thursday, February 18, in a near-equatorial crater called Jezero.
“When scientists look at our landing site, Jezero Crater, they see the scientific promise of it all: the remains of an ancient river flowing in and out of this crater and they think that’s the place to look for signs of past life” Says Allen Chen, the engineer leading the Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) effort for Perseverance. However, the expert also sees certain risks.
“There is danger everywhere. There is a 60 to 80 meter high cliff running through the center of our landing site. If you look to the west, there are craters that the robot cannot get out of even if we successfully land on one of them. And if you look to the east, there are big rocks that you couldn’t move over,” he said. Fortunately, Perseverance has some proven technologies that should ensure it reaches a safe point on the surface. The device is about the same size as a small SUV and weighs a ton.
The rover can autonomously move 200 meters per day and is equipped with 19 cameras and two microphones, with which scientists hope to record the first sounds of Mars. The mission will also try to fly a drone weighing 1.8 kg in another world for the first time. Despite its promises, we will only discover the full scope of Perseverance’s findings when samples collected on the red planet are returned to Earth. This will happen after the mission ends, two years from now.