We may have been deprived of social interaction and been stuck in our homes for the last few months, but science and exploration has continued. Launches of orbiters and rovers to the fourth rock from the Sun has definitely made 2020 the year of Mars.
The United Arab Emirates made history on July 19, 2020 when it successfully launched the Hope probe aboard a H2-A rocket from Tanegashima spaceport in Japan. Hope will travel 500-million-km to arrive at Mars in February 2021 and will study the planet’s weather and climate.
Next up is China, which launched its first Mars mission Tianwen-1 (meaning questions to heaven) on July 23, 2020. The spacecraft, containing a lander, a rover and an orbiter, went off from Wenchang Satellite Launch Centre aboard a Chinese Long March-5 rocket. Tianwen-1 will arrive at the red planet in February, spend a few months positioning itself for a landing and will release the orbiter and rover somewhere over Utopia Planitia. A successful landing will make China the second country after the US to land a rover on Mars. The mission will study geological features, surface characteristics, magnetic field and climate.
And now we come to today’s (July 30, 2020) exciting event, when NASA will launch its Perseverance rover – part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Programme, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. NASA is broadcasting the live launch coverage on NASA TV and YouTube, so don’t miss that. On board, Perseverance carries Ingenuity – a helicopter which is destined to become the first spacecraft to attempt powered flight on another planet! Ingenuity is a technology demonstration to test powered flight and will perform a series of flight tests over a period of 30 sol (Martian days) that will begin in spring 2021.
Demo video of NASA's Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter - Credit: NASA Mars 2020
Meanwhile, the Perseverance rover will land on Jezero Crater, study the geology of the planet, seek signs of ancient life, collect rock and soil samples to bring back to Earth and test oxygen production from the Martian atmosphere (96% carbon dioxide) for possible future human use. This gets better and better! Perseverance is expected to arrive in February 2021 (there seems to be a pattern here) and the mission is expected to last at least one Mars year (two Earth years). However, past missions have lasted for much longer than originally planned, so you never know.
All three missions were timed for July 2020, because at this time Earth and Mars are in good positions relative to each other for landing on Mars, which means it will take less power to travel, compared to other times when Earth and Mars are at different orbital positions.
The rovers and landers are joining another NASA lander called InSight (launched 2018) and NASA rover called Curiosity (operational on Mars since 2012) that are already studying the planet. Plus there are missions orbiting Mars including NASA’s Odyssey, (launched April 2001), European Space Agency’s (ESA) Express (launched 2003), NASA’s Mar Reconnaissance Orbiter (entered orbit in March 2006), Indian Space Research Organization’s Mangalyaan (launched November 2013), NASA’s Maven (entered orbit in 2014), and ExoMars (launched in 2016) a joint mission by ESA and Russia’s Roscosmos. So all the new missions will have a lot of company. Altogether there have been 56 mission to Mars so far, out of which 26 have been successful.
Right, I’m off to watch the launch! Check out a 3D model of Mars below and for more information check out NASA’s Mars2020 webpage.
3D Model of Mars. Credit: NASA