When NASA’s Perseverance mission lands on Mars on February 18th, the United States will be the third country with a robotic spacecraft exploring the Red Planet.
The three unmanned spacecraft rocketed away pretty much at the same time last July, as they all waited to launch when the distance between the Earth and Mars was relatively short.
The planetary alignment occurs only every two years so instead of the nine months it takes to reach Mars, it took them seven.
The first orbiter to reach Mars was Amal (Hope in Arabic), which plans to monitor the Red Planet atmosphere during a two Earth-year mission (or one Martian year).
Hope is the UAE’s 1st mission beyond Earth orbit, and the fifth country to successfully place a spacecraft into orbit around Mars, after the United States, former Soviet Union, European Space Agency and India.
A massive achievement for the Emirati Space Agency that aims to be at the forefront of science & innovation. In charge of the Hope mission is a woman, 33 year-old Sarah Al-Amiri, chair of the UAE Space Agency and UAE minister of State for advanced technology.
The second mission that is already in orbit around Mars is Tianwen-1, an orbiter and lander and China’s first spacecraft to explore an extraterrestrial planet.
The Tianwen-1 probe will survey the Martian atmosphere but its main mission is scheduled for May, when Chinese space engineers and scientists plan to soft-land a rover in the southern part of Mars’ Utopia Planitia, a region known to be relatively flat.
The NASA mission is the one capturing the most headlines. Perseverance, is scheduled to actually land on the surface of Mars on Feb 18th 2021.
The mission includes a car-size rover called Perseverance and a helicopter called Ingenuity which is attached to the rover. Ingenuity is the first made-for-Mars helicopter, and if everything goes to plan, it will be the first aircraft to test flight on another planet.
NASA will try to land Perseverance in Jezero Crater- the most challenging Martian terrain ever targeted for a landing.
The reason for this is because Jezero Crater has been identified as one of the best places in Mars to look for ancient microbial life.
The rover will pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and will be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and sediment for later return to Earth.
Perseverance has been described by NASA as a “robotic astrobiologist” and it will look for signs of previous life on Mars. It will also demonstrate technologies for making oxygen from the Martian atmosphere.
Perseverance carries an instrument called Moxie (Mars Oxigen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) that will produce oxygen from Mars carbon dioxide atmosphere, facilitating future missions to produce oxygen for breathing and rocket propellant.
We can watch the Perseverance mission landing live on NASA TV with a slight delay in timings due to the difficulty of deep-space communications.
One of the most exciting moments to watch will probably be Perseverance’s entry, descent, and landing or what engineers call the “seven minutes of terror” .
It takes about 7 minutes to get from the top of the atmosphere of Mars to the ground safely. Adding to the difficulty of landing in Mars, is that fact that the spacecraft has to do all this by itself during these critical seven minutes.
These robotic missions will no doubt pave the way for one day sending astronauts to Mars.
Even though NASA has no specific plans for landing humans on Mars for now- the moon is the agency’s first priority- there has been talks of a first crewed Mars landing sometime in the 2030’s.
However, as we have clearly seen this year with the pandemic, wherever humans go, contamination follows so International law should be written to regulate and protect the environment of space.
There is little doubt that humans will one day make the daring and difficult journey to Mars, but while many important problems are being solved before trying such a voyage, we must ensure that protecting the environment of space will always come first as the consequences of doing whatever we want in space, could be devastating for us all living in planet Earth.
For now, let’s congratulate the Perseverance team of scientists and engineers for the fantastic and important work they are doing.
These three missions are proof that Earth’s second closest planetary neighbour is not as faraway as we thought.