NASA's Perseverance and missions from China, UAE set to reach Mars in February, here’s what they want to achieve
After nearly 300 million miles, Perseverance completes its journey to the Red Planet on February 18, 2021
Space exploration is expected to ramp up further in 2021, and Mars promises to be a hot destination. Spacecrafts from three programs — Mars 2020 (US), Tianwen-1 (China), and Hope Probe (the United Arab Emirates or UAE) – are expected to enter the planet’s orbit in February, hoping to start new chapters of exploration there. Here’s what is known so far about each mission.
Seven minutes of harrowing descent to the Red Planet is in the not-so-distant future for NASA’s Mars 2020 mission. Launched on July 30, 2020, the mission’s Perseverance rover is scheduled to land on the surface of Mars on February 18, 2021.
Once at the top of Mars' atmosphere, an action-packed descent awaits — complete with temperatures equivalent to the surface of the Sun, supersonic parachute inflation, and the first-ever autonomous guided landing on Mars. Only then can the rover — which according to NASA is “the biggest, heaviest, cleanest, and most sophisticated six-wheeled robotic geologist” ever launched into space — search Jezero Crater for signs of ancient life and collect samples that will eventually be returned to Earth.
On January 6, the agency informed that the spacecraft has started its approach to the Red Planet and in 43 days, Perseverance will blaze through Mars atmosphere at about 12,100 mph (19,500 kph), touching down gently on the surface about seven minutes later. “After nearly 300 million miles (470 million km), NASA’s Perseverance rover completes its journey to Mars on February 18, 2021. But, to reach the surface of the Red Planet, it has to survive the harrowing final phase known as entry, descent, and landing,” says NASA.
The mission will seek signs of ancient life, particularly in special rocks known to preserve signs of life over time. According to scientists, Jezero Crater is the perfect place to search for signs of ancient microbial life. Billions of years ago, the now-bone-dry 28-mile-wide (45-kilometer-wide) basin was home to an actively-forming river delta and lake filled with water. 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.
Perseverance is also collecting important data about Mars’ climate. “Understanding Mars’ past climate conditions and reading the geological history embedded in its rocks will give experts a richer sense of what the planet was like in its distant past. Studying the Red Planet’s geology and climate could also give us a sense of why Earth and Mars – despite some early similarities – ended up so different,” explain researchers.
Two future missions currently in the planning stages by NASA, in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA), will work together to bring the samples back to Earth, where they will undergo in-depth analysis by researchers around the world using equipment far too large and complex to send to the Red Planet.
While most of Perseverance’s seven science instruments are geared toward learning more about the planet’s geology and astrobiology, the probe 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. Future applications of the technology could produce the vast quantities of oxygen that would be needed as a component of the rocket fuel astronauts would rely on to return to Earth, and, of course, the oxygen could be used for breathing as well.
The Terrain-Relative Navigation system helps the rover avoid hazards. MEDLI2 (the Mars Entry, Descent, and Landing Instrumentation 2) sensor suite gathers data during the journey through the Martian atmosphere. Together the systems will help engineers design future human missions that can land more safely and with larger payloads on other worlds.
Another technology demonstration, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, is attached to the belly of the rover. Between 30 and 90 days into the rover’s mission, Ingenuity 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. The data acquired during these tests will help the next generation of Mars helicopters provide an aerial dimension to Mars exploration.
China's Tianwen-1, whose name means “Quest for Heavenly Truth,” is the nation’s first independent mission to Mars. It was launched by a Long March 5 heavy-lift carrier rocket on July 23 at the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province. The spacecraft is set to fall into Martian orbit on February 10, 2021.
The probe will orbit the planet before landing a rover on the surface, with the hope that it can gather important information about the Martian soil, geological structure, environment, atmosphere, and search for signs of water. The ultimate goal is to soft-land a rover in May 2021 on the southern part of Mars’ Utopia Planitia - a large plain within Utopia, the largest recognized impact basin in the solar system to make scientific surveys.
“According to the academy’s parent, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, a state-owned space conglomerate, the mission of Tianwen 1, or Quest for Heavenly Truth 1, will fulfill three objectives — orbiting the red planet for comprehensive observation, landing on Martian soil and sending a rover to roam the landing site. It will conduct scientific investigations into the planet’s soil, geological structure, environment, atmosphere, and water,” reads a statement by the China Academy of Space Technology.
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 getting captured by the Martian gravitational field in February, when it will be 193 million km away from Earth.
“The probe consists of three parts — the orbiter, the lander, and the rover — and they will separate in Mars orbit. The orbiter will remain in the orbit for scientific operations and relay signals while the lander-rover combination makes an autonomous descent and landing. The rover, which is expected to become the world’s seventh of its kind and the first from Asia, has six wheels and four solar panels and carries six scientific instruments. It weighs over 200 kilograms and will work for about three months on the planet, designers said,” note scientists.
The UAE mission reaches Mars and goes into orbit on February 9, 2021. The Hope Probe took off from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan and marks the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission.
NASA tweeted its congratulations after Hope’s successful launch, writing on Perseverance’s official Twitter page: “I wish you a successful journey and look forward to the sol when we are both exploring Mars...I cannot wait to join you on the journey!”
Thank you, @NASAPersevere. The launch was really exciting. I wish you all the best for your big day. See you soon!— Hope Mars Mission (@HopeMarsMission) July 19, 2020
Thank you. I cannot wait to join you on the journey! pic.twitter.com/CTYBHX3AMk— NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) July 19, 2020
The probe will stay in orbit for a Martian year to gather data about Mars’ atmosphere. “The Emirates Mars Mission (EMM) is designed to orbit Mars and study the dynamics in the Martian atmosphere on a global scale, and on both diurnal and seasonal timescales. Using three scientific instruments onboard the spacecraft, EMM will provide a set of measurements fundamental to an improved understanding of circulation and weather in the Martian lower and middle atmosphere,” write researchers.
According to the team, combining such data with the monitoring of the upper layers of the atmosphere, EMM measurements will “reveal the mechanisms behind the upward transport of energy and particles, and the subsequent escape of atmospheric particles from the gravity of Mars.”