Science

Three spaceships are more than half way to the Red Planet


A trio of spaceships from Earth are on their way to Mars in search of life and to better understand the atmosphere and environment of the Red Planet.

Orbiter missions from the United Arab Emirates and China, as well as rovers from the Chinese and American space agencies are due to arrive by the middle of February. 

Each of the vessels are currently hurtling through space at thousands of miles per hour, gathering data about the space between the two worlds to send back home.

The NASA mission is the largest, sending the next generation of rover that will follow in the footsteps of Curiosity in revealing more about our neighbouring world.

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. 

All of the missions are getting close to Mars and are due to arrive in orbit early in February 2021

All of the missions are getting close to Mars and are due to arrive in orbit early in February 2021

Each of the three missions is unique, looking to achieve slightly different things and different milestones for their respective space agencies.

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.

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.

NASA’s 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, which has sent many stunning images back to Earth.

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. 

This plaque was attached to Perseverance to celebrate the health care workers who battled on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020

This plaque was attached to Perseverance to celebrate the health care workers who battled on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 

Scientists use the color swatches on the primary calibration target for Mastcam-Z – a pair of zoomable cameras aboard NASA's Perseverance Mars rover – to fine-tune the cameras' settings

Scientists use the color swatches on the primary calibration target for Mastcam-Z – a pair of zoomable cameras aboard NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover – to fine-tune the cameras’ settings

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. 

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 embellishments 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 gorgeous colour panoramas of the Martian surface.  

A number of sample-return missions are planned for Mars over the coming decade including from China, Japan and a combined NASA and European mission

A number of sample-return missions are planned for Mars over the coming decade including from China, Japan and a combined NASA and European mission

NASA's Mars Perseverance rover is being sent to Mars to take samples from beneath the surface to get a better picture of the ancient barren world

NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover is being sent to Mars to take samples from beneath the surface to get a better picture of the ancient barren world

As with Curiosity, Perseverance was built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which leads the mission. 

Much of the festooning aboard the rover serves a dual purpose, including the Mastcam-Z, which serves as the eyes of the rover and doubles as a ‘sundial’.

These help scientists ensure the cameras’ colour settings are correct, given that the position of the Sun and the dustiness of the sky can affect the lighting in images.

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The spaceship also includes a memorial plaque to honour the many healthcare workers who risked their lives helping people affected by Covid-19.

A key objective for Perseverance’s mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life.  

The rocky Martian landscape is a tricky one for a rover to navigate, but the new NASA Perseverance rover has been designed to cope and will dig deep into the surface

The rocky Martian landscape is a tricky one for a rover to navigate, but the new NASA Perseverance rover has been designed to cope and will dig deep into the surface 

The rover will characterise the planet’s geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust).

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 in-depth analysis.

In December NASA approved plans for the Mars Sample Return (MSR) multi-mission effort to bring samples, gathered by Perseverance, back to the Earth by 2030. 

‘Returning samples of Mars to Earth has been a goal of planetary scientists since the early days of the space age,’ said Thomas Zurbuchen, from NASA. 

‘MSR is a complex campaign, and it encapsulates the very essence of pioneering space exploration – pushing the boundaries of what’s capable and, in so doing, furthering our understanding of our place in the universe.’ 

The Mars 2020 mission is part of a larger programme that includes missions to the Moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet. 

Charged with returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024, NASA will establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by 2028 through NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration plans.  

Hope: Emirates Mars Mission 

Those 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. 

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. 

The trajectory during the cruise has been accurate enough that they have been able to plan new scientific observations for the final approach to Mars. 

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 hydrogen modelling. 

The UAE Mars Hope satellite launched from Japan on July 15 and is due to enter Mars' orbit on February 9 where it will monitor the weather on the red Planet

The UAE Mars Hope satellite launched from Japan on July 15 and is due to enter Mars’ orbit on February 9 where it will monitor the weather on the red Planet

The 3,000lb (1,350kg) craft (pictured) will complete one orbit every 55 hours for a total of one Martian year — 687 Earth days

The 3,000lb (1,350kg) craft (pictured) will complete one orbit every 55 hours for a total of one Martian year — 687 Earth days

‘We will also use the star trackers on board to perform measurements of interplanetary dust as we cruise towards MOI,’ he said.

Sensors will help reveal the secrets of Martian climate 

UAE’s Amal orbiter will have three sensors on-board to help astronomers learn more about Mars’s climate. 

One will be a high-resolution camera dedicated to tracking dust movements and the ozone of Mars. 

This will scan a range of light frequencies. 

Another device will specifically focus on infrared and was built by scientists at Arizona State University. 

This IR camera will measure both the upper and lower atmosphere.  

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The third sensor will be an ultraviolet spectrometer for measuring oxygen and hydrogen levels.

‘The current performance of Hope has provided the science team an opportunity to make valuable science data measurements that can only be captured en-route to a planet.’

By enabling the dust-tracking feature in Mars Hope’s star trackers, measurements of interplanetary dust density can be made far from Earth’s orbit that will contribute to our understanding of the distribution of dust throughout the solar system.  

‘These experiments have been made possible simply because Mars Hope is in such good shape,’ commented Hessa Al Matroushi, EMM’s Deputy Project Manager.  

Following the successful launch from the Tanegashima Space Centre in southwestern Japan on July 20, the Mars Hope probe was expected to require seven trajectory corrections during the seven-month journey to the Red Planet.

However, the probe’s trajectory was so far within its tolerances that a total of four were needed, of which the fourth is minor, and will align the craft for its orbital insertion.

Hope aims to build the first full picture of Mars’ climate throughout the Martian year. 

‘We are delighted with the performance of the Mars Hope probe to date and are now well on our way to achieving our goal of reaching the Red planet and commencing our science mission.’ Said UAE Minister for Advanced Technologies Sarah Al Amiri. 

‘Every new challenge, every first we achieve on the journey, is an incredible accomplishment for the team – and a step nearer to delivering on our mission objectives.’

The Mars exploration is among several new space projects China is pursuing, including putting Chinese astronauts on the moon and having a space station by 2022. This graphic illustrates different types of rovers and satellites are currently orbiting the red planet

The Mars exploration is among several new space projects China is pursuing, including putting Chinese astronauts on the moon and having a space station by 2022. This graphic illustrates different types of rovers and satellites are currently orbiting the red planet

Tianwen-1: China’s first Mars rover 

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.

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 and northwest of the Mars InSight lander that touched down in November 2018. 

Alfred McEwen, a planetary scientist from the University of Arizona, told Space.com that the site was mostly flat and smooth but with craters and ridges.

He said it has been ‘interpreted as covered by mud flows’ by some scientists and so there could be evidence of ancient deep groundwater.

China's ambitious plan to conquer the red planet was revealed by Bao, an academic from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in an interview with CCTV. The picture shows an illustration of the 'Tianwen-1' spacecraft being captured by the gravitational fields of Mars

China’s ambitious plan to conquer the red planet was revealed by Bao, an academic from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in an interview with CCTV. The picture shows an illustration of the ‘Tianwen-1’ spacecraft being captured by the gravitational fields of Mars

The Tianwen-1 spacecraft was carried by a Long March-5 rocket and is expected to reach the red planet in February. The animated picture shows an illustration of a rover being released by the Chinese 'Tianwen-1' spacecraft to explore the Martian surface

The Tianwen-1 spacecraft was carried by a Long March-5 rocket and is expected to reach the red planet in February. The animated picture shows an illustration of a rover being released by the Chinese ‘Tianwen-1’ spacecraft to explore the Martian surface

There are currently two spaceships on their way to put a rover on Mars (pictured) from NASA and China - the Chinese rover will be used as a test bed for a future sample-return mission

There are currently two spaceships on their way to put a rover on Mars (pictured) from NASA and China – the Chinese rover will be used as a test bed for a future sample-return mission

It is unlikely there is any surface ice within the range of the Tianwen-1 rover, but it could use a Subsurface Exploration Radar instrument – used on the Chang’e-4 mission to look beneath the surface of the Moon – to search for underground ice.

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While the Tianwen-1 spaceship will arrive in Martian orbit in February, it could be three months before the rover launches for the surface of the planet.

CNSA will use this time to use high and medium resolution cameras to assess the site and conditions before deciding when to begin the landing process.

The landing site is lower than other parts of Mars due to being inside an impact basin, so there will be more time for the spaceship to slow down on entry.

If successful it will operate for 90 Martian days – one Martian day is about 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth, so it is roughly 93 Earth days.

The spaceship’s orbiter will fly around the planet while the lander will release the robotic rover to carry out patrol exploration and research, according to the scientist. The picture shows an animated illustration of the rover being released by the lander after the spacecraft lands

The spaceship’s orbiter will fly around the planet while the lander will release the robotic rover to carry out patrol exploration and research, according to the scientist. The picture shows an animated illustration of the rover being released by the lander after the spacecraft lands

A search for Martian life 

These missions all have a similar goal, to better understand our nearest planetary neighbour and help search for possible signs of alien life.

The 2020s and 2030s will be the Mars decades, with multiple uncrewed missions due to launch over this decade to look for life and even bring back rock samples.

The European Space Agency Rosalind Franklin Rover will head for the red Planet in 2023 and follow up NASA/ESA missions will happen before 2030.

China, the Japanese Space Agency JAXA and a joint ESA and NASA mission are all planned for later in the decade to return rock samples from Mars to Earth.

In the 2030s humans will step foot on the Red Planet for the first time as part of the wider Artemis mission from NASA – that will first land astronauts on the Moon again, before using that as a launch pad for a crewed Mars mission.

Elon Musk also has his sights set on Mars – with an ambitious plan to send his not yet operational Starship to the planet without a crew by 2024 and crewed by 2027, 

NASA MARS 2020: THE MISSION WILL SEE THE PERSEVERANCE ROVER AND INGENUITY HELICOPTER SEARH FOR LIFE

NASA’s Mars 2020 mission will search for signs of ancient life on on the Red Planet in a bid to help scientists better understand how life evolved on Earth. 

Named Perseverance, the main car-sized rover will explore an ancient river delta within the Jezero Crater, which was once filled with a 1,600ft deep lake.

It is believed that the region hosted microbial life some 3.5 to 3.9 billion years ago and the rover will examine soil samples to hunt for evidence of the life.

Nasa's Mars 2020 rover (artist's impression) will search for signs of ancient life on Mars in a bid to help scientists better understand how life evolved on our own planet

Nasa’s Mars 2020 rover (artist’s impression) will search for signs of ancient life on Mars in a bid to help scientists better understand how life evolved on our own planet

The $2.5 billion (£1.95 billion) Mars 2020 spaceship launched on July 30 witht he rover and helicopter inside – and will land on February 18, 2021.

Perseverance is designed to land inside the crater and collect samples that will eventually be returned to Earth for further analysis.

A second mission will fly to the planet and return the samples, perhaps by the later 2020s in partnership with the European Space Agency.

This concept art shows the Mars 2020 rover landing on the red planet via NASA's 'sky-crane' system

This concept art shows the Mars 2020 rover landing on the red planet via NASA’s ‘sky-crane’ system



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