ETA February: Martian orbit to congest as Earth missions reach Red planet

This illustration shows NASA’s Perseverance rover casting off its spacecraft’s cruise stage, minutes before entering the Martian atmosphere. (Nasa)
It was Galileo Galilei who first observed this planet in 1609 with a primitive telescope followed by Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, who first drew this planet using his advanced telescope. This celestial body they were amazed by was Mars. Nearly 400 years after the astronomers established its elliptical planetary motion, the Martian orbit is set to be congested as a handful of international missions from Earth land on this distant neighbour. 

In July 2020, a flurry of launches took place, even as the world suffered one of the worst catastrophes in the last century, the Covid-19 pandemic. As the virus took over, work shifted to remote locations as scientists in the US, UAE and China worked to launch the Perseverance rover, Hope probe and the ambitious Tianwen-1 respectively in a bid to strengthen the search for signs of life on the red planet. 

The missions launches were conducted in July 2020 as Mars was at perigee to Earth, the closest flyby, reducing the travel time, fuel consumption and cost of the mission. Such a window appears once every 26 months. The missions are set to arrive this month.

The rock samples that the rover will collect will be studied with data taken from the landscape in which they formed. NASA

Nasa to persevere and lay the groundwork for future crewed mission

One of the most advanced missions and the toughest undertaken in the Martian environment, the Perseverance rover is all set to land on February 18. The missions will "advance NASA's quest to explore the past habitability of Mars." Part of an ongoing robotic exploration of the planet, this mission will last at least 687 days or one Martian year. The rover, with high-priority science goal to address key questions on the possibility of life on Mars, is being seen as the next big step ahead of the proposed future manned missions. 

The mission will land in the Jezero Crater, a bone-dry 45-kilometre-wide basin that was once home to an actively-forming river delta and lake filled with water. According to Nasa, the rock and regolith (broken rock and dust) that Perseverance’s Sample Caching System collects from Jezero could help answer fundamental questions about the existence of life beyond Earth. Two future missions currently in the planning stages in collaboration with the European Space Agency will work together to bring these samples back to Earth. However, to reach the crater, the rover will have to go through the "seven minutes of hell" that includes a controlled descent – complete with temperatures equivalent to the surface of the Sun, supersonic parachute inflation, and the first-ever autonomous guided landing on the planet's surface. 

The rover, with high-priority science goal to address key questions on the possibility of life on Mars, is being seen as the next big step ahead of the proposed future manned missions. (NASA)

“NASA has been exploring Mars since Mariner 4 performed a flyby in July of 1965, with two more flybys, seven successful orbiters, and eight landers since then,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in a statement. “Perseverance, which was built from the collective knowledge gleaned from such trailblazers, has the opportunity to not only expand our knowledge of the Red Planet but to investigate one of the most important and exciting questions of humanity about the origin of life both on Earth and also on other planets.”

The mission also carries technologies more focused on future Mars exploration. MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment), a car-battery-size device in the rover’s chassis, is designed to demonstrate that converting Martian carbon dioxide into oxygen is possible. The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter attached to the belly of the rover will be deployed to attempt the first experimental flight test on another planet. If that initial flight is successful, Ingenuity will fly up to four more times. 

An ambitious China sets eyes on scoping Mars

A black and white picture of the Red Planet, snapped by the Tianwen-1 announced to the world the arrival of China in the Martian race as its probe conducted the fourth orbital correction to zone in on its destination. Tianwen 1, launched on July 23, has flown for over 197 days and more than 465 million kilometres on its journey to the planet. It is now less than a million km from Mars. 

The orbiter will map the planet's morphology (formation) and geological structures. (Source: CNSA)

"The spacecraft will conduct a braking operation to decelerate and make sure it will be captured by Martian gravity around Feb 10," said China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, the nation's leading space contractor. The space administration previously said if everything goes according to schedule, the 5 metric ton probe, which consists of two major parts - the orbiter and the landing capsule - will travel more than 470 million km before entering Martian orbit. Approved by Chinese authorities in January 2016, Tianwen translates to "questions about the heavens," and has been adapted from ancient Chinese verse by poet Qu Yuan. "In 'Tianwen,' Qu Yuan raised a series of questions in verse involving the sky, stars, natural phenomena, myths and the real world, showing his doubts about some traditional concepts and the spirit of seeking the truth," Xinhua reported.

The Tianwen-1 orbiter will provide a relay communication link to the rover while performing its own scientific observations for one Martian year. The orbiter will map the planet's morphology (formation) and geological structures using the Mars-Orbiting Subsurface Exploration Radar instrument. It will also observe the soil characteristics and water-ice distribution. Meanwhile, the rover which will land in Utopia Planitia basin is expected to be in operation for 90 Marian days. It will observe the surface soil characteristics and analyse the surface material composition with reference to the planet's climate and environment. The Utopia Planitia basin holds significance as it was also the landing site for NASA’s Viking Lander 2 in 1976.

An artist's illustration of China's first Mars rover Tianwen-1 on the Red Planet. (CNSA)

A Hope for UAE as the Arab nation looks beyond Earth

UAE's Hope Probe, when it reaches the Martian orbit later this month will be the first to provide a complete picture of the Martian atmosphere and its layers. It will help answer key questions about the global Martian atmosphere and the loss of hydrogen and oxygen gases into space over the span of a Martian year.

The mission objective is to understand the climate dynamics and the global weather map by characterising the lower atmosphere of the Red planet. "The mission aims to build the Emirati capabilities in the field of interplanetary exploration and to Inspire future Arab generations to pursue space science," the mission statement reflects. 

Arab's first spacecraft for Mars is a result of six-year of scientific work by nearly 200 engineers. (Source: UAE Space Agency)

Dubbed as Amal, or Hope the arrival of the spacecraft in Martian orbit coincides with the year the UAE celebrates 50 years since its formation. A newcomer in space development, the UAE has successfully put three Earth observation satellites into orbit. A successful Hope mission to Mars would be a major step for the oil-dependent economy seeking a future in space, coming over a year after the launch of the first UAE astronaut, Hazzaa Ali Almansoori. The UAE has set a goal to build a human colony on Mars by 2117.

As Earth switches into the new Covid normal, science on Mars is set to get a major upgrade. 

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