Jul 31

A Window to Mars

In just the latter half of July, the world has seen three separate space launches all with the same destination in mind: Mars. Because the opportunity to travel to Mars roughly opens once every twenty-six months, three countries – The United Arab Emirates, China, and The United States – have each launched a mission to the Red Planet with the aim of further studying our celestial neighbour. 

The UAE was the first to send their Hope Probe toward Mars on 19 July. With the successful launch from the Japanese Tanegashima spaceport, the Hope Probe orbital satellite is to be positioned in Mars’ orbit to study the planet’s weather and climate. Scientists in Dubai expect the probe to deliver new insights into the intricacies of the planet’s atmosphere, specifically studying how energy moves through the atmosphere and the behaviour of neutral hydrogen and oxygen atoms suspected to be a key player in Mars’ atmospheric erosion. While this probe is not the first orbital satellite to be launched toward Mars, it is the first such launch undertaken by the UAE. 

Left: Artist’s depiction of the Hope Probe satellite. (Credit: Emirates Mars Mission), Right: Artist’s depiction of the Tianwen-1 satellite and rover crafts. (Credit: Nature Astronomy).

Swiftly following the UAE, China launched the Tianwen-1 rocket on 23 July with both an orbital satellite and a surface lander. This is the first time in history that both an orbiter and a lander have been sent to Mars simultaneously and will be the first time China will attempt to land a rover on the Martian surface. With the orbiter and lander together, China aims to collect a full survey of the Red Planet. The rover has been designed to map the planet’s morphology and geological structures, analyse its surface material composition, and measure its electromagnetic and gravitational fields. The orbital satellite likewise has been designed to collect pertinent data of the planet’s climate and atmosphere and will serve as a relay to transmit all surface and orbital data back to Earth.

On 30 July, NASA launched its fifth rover – Perseverance – to Mars from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Building from its previous rover Curiosity – whose mission was to detect if Mars once had the resources i.e. water and chemical ingredients to sustain life – Perseverance has been specifically tasked with seeking out possible signs of ancient life on Mars alongside collecting surface samples to return to Earth. The parameters of this mission will further develop NASA’s ultimate goal of eventually transporting humans to Mars for future in-depth exploration.

Artist’s depiction of NASA’s Perseverance rover exploring Mars (Credit: NASA)

In order to travel to Mars, each of these launches took advantage of the current planetary alignment between Mars and Earth. Due to the differences in both shape and length of their orbits, the Earth takes roughly half the amount of time to orbit the Sun than Mars – 365 days versus 687 days – thus leaving the two planets in rather distant proximity from one another throughout most of their orbits. But once every twenty-six months, Earth and Mars align rather nicely on the same side of the Sun. Space agencies commonly target Mars launches during this time as the duration of the journey will be at its shortest and less fuel and fewer resources would be necessary to complete the flight. 

The earliest any of these launches will reach Mars will be in February 2021. But the historic interest and action taken undertaking missions to Mars has further advanced deep-space travel and international exploration. The President of the Mars Society Australia, Jon Clarke, commented that with the addition of new space powers and players (i.e. UAE and China) “Solar System exploration is [no longer] the prerogative of the Euro-American world, but a global enterprise.” Though it will be months until human technology again reaches Mars, the globalisation of the space industry will only lead to further international collaboration and could see even further strides to Martian and deep-space exploration. 

– Evan Cook

About the Author:

Evan has a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Surrey and a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of South Carolina – Aiken. He is currently studying at the International Space University pursuing a career in space journalism and communications outreach. He is an award-winning author, playwright and filmmaker. 

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