Mars is the place to be right now.
Two interplanetary missions arrived there this week, with NASA’s Perseverance rover set to join them on Feb. 18.
They’re there to provide earthbound scientists with the most information yet about Mars, as well as to show off domestic might – two of the three spacecraft come from nations that have never before made successful journeys to the red planet.
It’s no coincidence that all three missions are landing within 10 days of each other. They all set off from Earth last July, taking advantage of some rare planetary positioning.
“The Earth and Mars are in these orbits that are not locked into each other, and so the distance between the planets varies a lot. There’s a launch window that happens about every 26 months or so where if you leave then, you have the shortest possible path to get to Mars,” CTV News Science and Technology Analyst Dan Riskin told CTVNews.ca via telephone on Wednesday.
“The last launch window was nine months ago, and that’s why everyone is getting there now.”
The next window will occur in 2022, when both Russia and the European Space Agency plan to send spacecraft of their own on the 480-million-kilometre journey to Mars.
Here, we take a look at the timetables, goals and aspirations of each of the spacecraft arriving at Mars this month.
Amal is unique among the three missions in that it is not sending a rover to the red planet’s surface, instead observing Mars from orbit only.
Named after the Arabic word for hope, Amal is the first interplanetary mission ever from the Arab world. It is the latest success in the ambitious space program of the United Arab Emirates, which sent its first astronaut into space in 2019. The orbiter’s launch was timed in part to mark the 50th anniversary of that country’s formation.
Making the craft a reality and getting it to Mars was an international effort, however. Scientists in Dubai worked with others in the U.S. to develop the car-sized Amal, which was assembled in Colorado and launched from Japan.
Amal is expected to orbit Mars at between 22,000 kilometres and 44,000 kilometres above its surface, surveying the planet’s atmosphere for two years. Scientists hope its findings will help them understand why hydrogen and oxygen are leaving the planet’s atmosphere and leaking into space.
Because it does not include a surface rover, it was much cheaper to produce than either of the other spacecraft arriving at Mars this month, with an estimated price tag of US$200 million.
Dubai’s ambitions don’t stop at an orbiter: the country has set a goal of establishing a human colony on Mars by 2117.
Amal won the race, but only because it had a head start.
China’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft launched four days after Amal last July, and arrived in Martian orbit only 21 hours or so behind it.
The success of the mission was greeted with joy and relief in China, which tried to send an orbiter to the red planet a decade ago, only to see it fail to escape Earth’s orbit.
Like the UAE, China has big future plans for space, hoping to build a permanent space station of its own and send astronauts to the moon.
While China’s space agency is the fifth to successfully have a craft orbit Mars – behind the U.S., Europe, India and the UAE – only the U.S. has so far managed to land a rover on the surface.
Tianwen-1 was designed to put China second on that list. The solar-powered rover, which is about the size of a golf cart, is designed to separate from the spacecraft in May and land on a flat part of the planet’s surface.
Once that happens, it will start to scout the area, collecting data on underground water and searching for signs of past microscopic life.
Tianwen is the title of an ancient Chinese poem and roughly translates to “quest for heavenly truth.”
NASA’s long-lasting Martian rover is about to get a buddy.
Curiosity landed on Mars’ surface in 2012 and remains active to this day, long past the end of its original mission.
Now Perseverance – a new rover based on Curiosity’s technology – is a few days away from joining it.
Unlike Tianwen-1, Perseverance will not spend three months in orbit before hitting the ground. It has been programmed to land directly on Mars’ surface on Feb. 18.
Perseverance’s mission is similar to Tianwen-1’s, as it will scour the planet for signs of ancient microscopic life.
Its search will be risky, as it will start in Jezero Crater, which scientists consider a logical spot for life to have once existed – but also a wild enough landscape that Curiosity was designed to steer clear of it. It’s full of cliffs, pits and rocks.
Equipped with cameras and microphones, Perseverance will be able to record its landing, which audiences on Earth will be able to witness on an 11.5-minute delay. The tricky landing was mapped out by NASA earlier this winter in its “7 Minutes of Terror” video.
Samples it collects from the surface will be set aside for another rover to pick up later this decade, potentially bringing the first Martian samples ever back to Earth by the early 2030s.
With files from CTVNews.ca’s Alexandra Mae Jones and The Associated Press