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The solar system is about to get busy! In the next few weeks, a slew of spacecraft will embark on a one-way journey to Mars, to seek evidence of past life and to further investigate its unusual atmosphere. The back-to-back missions are timed to take advantage of the short window of opportunity — caused by celestial mechanics — that will allow them to reach the Red Planet in the most efficient and cost-effective manner.
Earth, as you probably know, takes 365 days to orbit the Sun, while Mars moves at a slower pace, completing its rotation around the star in 687 days, or about 1.88 Earth years. However, about once every 26 months, the two planets briefly align. Since they are the closest to each other at this point, the journey between the two worlds takes the least amount of time, making it the ideal time to send missions. The current window of opportunity begins on July 15, 2020, and ends on August 15, 2020, and the next one will not occur until September 2022.
The flurry of activity will begin with the lift-off of the United Arab Emirates' (UAE) Hope orbiter from Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan on July 16, 2020. The spacecraft's launch, initially scheduled for July 14, 2020, had to be postponed due to inclement weather. Hope will be closely followed by China's Tianwen-1 mission on July 23, 2020, and NASA's Mars 2020 mission on July 30, 2020.
UAE's Hope, or "Al Amal" Mission
Also called the Emirates Mars Mission, the Hope — "Al-Amal" in Arabic — Mission is the UAE's first uncrewed interplanetary satellite and the first planetary science mission led by an Arab-Islamic country. Developed in collaboration with the University of Colorado Boulder, University of California, Berkeley, and Arizona State University, the Hope spacecraft's primary mission is to help answer some outstanding questions about the Red Planet's climate and atmosphere.
The state-of-the-art weather satellite is expected to enter Mars' orbit in February 2021, coinciding with the UAE's golden jubilee celebrations. It will circle the Red Planet for at least an entire Martian year, or about two Earth years (687 days). If all goes well, the mission could be extended until 2025.
Researchers hope that the data collected — the first daily multiple-year record of Martian climate — will provide insights into how the once warm and humid planet transformed into the current icy and hostile world. The Hope orbiter will also investigate what caused the Mars atmosphere to lose its oxygen and hydrogen and study the connection between its lower and upper atmospheres.
China's Tianwen-1 Mission
China's debut Mars mission, Tianwen-1 — which means "questions to heaven" in Chinese — will be launched to the Red Planet by a heavy-lift launch system, dubbed Long March 5, on July 23, 2020. The ambitious project, which comprises an orbiter, a lander, and a 530-pound (240-kilogram) rover, is scheduled to land on Mars in early 2021.
Details of the mission, including the final landing site for the lander/rover, remain a little hazy. However, given the orbiter's six instruments, which include a high-resolution camera and a powerful ground-penetrating radar capable of detecting subsurface water up to an impressive 330 feet (100 meters), scientists suspect its primary mission is to conduct a broad survey of the Martian environment.
If successful, China will become just the third nation after the Soviet Union and the United States to land a spacecraft on Mars. And that epic touchdown may lead the way to even bigger things in the near future: Chinese space officials have voiced a desire to mount a Mars sample-return mission, which could perhaps launch as early as 2030.
USA's Mars 2020 Mission
American space agency NASA, which has already had four successful Mars missions, is getting ready to send yet another rover to the Red Planet. On July 30, 2020, the Atlas V rocket will launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, with Perseverance. The six-wheeled, car-sized rover is expected to land inside Mars' Jezero Crater — a 28-mile-wide (45-kilometer) ancient river delta and lake — on February 18, 2021. The rover's descent, which will be captured on video by its powerful cameras, will allow Earthlings to experience the sight and sounds of a parachute billowing open on Mars for the first time. Perseverance will also transport 10.9 million "passengers" —or at least their names recorded on three dime-sized chips — to the Red Planet.
Upon landing, the rover will put its seven onboard instruments to work to accomplish several goals, including searching for signs of long-dead life. Perseverance will also investigate Jezero's geology, search for subsurface water, and collect and store promising rock samples inside its sterilized titanium tubes. The samples will be brought to Earth by NASA's Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL). The ambitious mission, conceived in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA), is expected to launch sometime in 2026.
About two months after getting to Mars, around the 60th Martian day, or sol, Perseverance will release a small helicopter that is currently attached to its base. Dubbed Ingenuity, the robotic quadcopter is the first of its kind to be tested on the Red Planet. If successful, the machines could be used in future missions to carry small payloads or to investigate difficult-to-reach terrains, such as deep craters and steep cliffs.
While the historic launch, which will be live-streamed worldwide, is a few weeks away, NASA has created many fun and interactive mission-related activities for adults and kids to enjoy without leaving home. These include participating in a launch countdown video and use a virtual photo booth to take a Mars 2020 Mission souvenir photo. Be sure to check them out by clicking here.
Resources: Space.com, spacenews.com, Forbes.com