A Race to Mars Is Starting in Summer 2020
Matthew Greenwood posted on July 27, 2020 |
Three countries are rushing to catch a narrow launch window—or risk being forced to wait until 2022.

A new space race is underway this summer: the race to Mars, featuring the United States, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and China. Let’s take a look at the technologies each country is sending to explore the red planet.


United States


NASA’s Perseverance rover
NASA’s Perseverance rover

NASA’s Perseverance rover seems to be the most reliable bet for operating on the Martian surface. It’s anticipated to land in Mars’ Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021.

The 2,315-pound Perseverance is essentially an upgraded version of the Curiosity rover. But while the vehicles look virtually the same on the outside, Perseverance is much different than its predecessor on the inside. The next-gen vehicle features an improved and more precise landing system and hardened wheels to better navigate the planet’s rough terrain. It is equipped with a different set of scientific tools as well: while Curiosity’s instruments measured if Mars was habitable, Perseverance’s suite of seven onboard instruments will be geared toward finding evidence of actual life. Its instruments include a ground-penetrating radar to search for subterranean ice, visual imagery, and a technology designed to generate oxygen from the Martian atmosphere that is 95 percent carbon dioxide by volume.

Perseverance will use an autonomous, rocket-powered platform that operates a crane arm to gently lower the rover onto the surface—the same system used by Curiosity.

NASA’s Ingenuity experimental Mars helicopter.
NASA’s Ingenuity experimental Mars helicopter.

Perseverance won’t be alone—it’ll be accompanied by NASA’s Ingenuity, a prototype helicopter designed specifically for flight on Mars. Weighing a mere four pounds, Ingenuity will perform a series of short test flights and take airborne images of the planet’s surface, including shots of the rover. If the results are promising, it may open up possibilities for using helicopter technology on future Mars missions—they could be deployed to explore caves or rough terrain that the rovers otherwise can’t access.

United Arab Emirates

The UAE mission—the first of which launched on July 19—is the first planetary science mission by an Arab Islamic country. The autonomous sedan-sized Hope orbiter will arrive at Mars in February 2021, parking itself in an elliptical orbit above the planet that will bring it to within 13,000 miles of the surface. Hope will take daily measurements of the atmosphere to trace day-to-day changes as well as extreme weather conditions—resulting in the first planetary map of Mars’ atmosphere. The UAE will share its data with the international scientific community, with no embargo—which could make the tiny country a major player in Mars research.

Hope carries three instruments: a high-resolution camera that will capture images of the surface and search for ice; an infrared spectrometer to measure dust, ice and water vapor in the lower atmosphere; and an ultraviolet spectrometer to analyze the planet’s upper atmosphere.

“The geology of Mars has been studied quite extensively,” said Sarah Al Amiri, UAE’s Minister of State for Advanced Sciences and the mission’s science lead. “We are only just getting started on the atmosphere.”

China

Earth’s rising aerospace superpower isn’t about to be left behind when comes to Mars. China’s Tianwen-1 mission, which launched on July 23, is the country’s first foray to the red planet.

Not surprisingly, details about the mission have been hard to come by due to the country’s sometimes secretive space program. What we do know is that the mission will operate differently than those of its competitors. Tianwen-1 consists of three parts: an orbiting vehicle, a lander and a rover.

The spacecraft will spend a few months orbiting Mars, waiting for the best moment to send down its lander and rover. It’s anticipated that the Chinese lander will touch down in Utopia Planitia, in the same neighborhood where NASA’s Viking 2 landed almost 50 years ago.

The lander will deploy a heat shield, retrograde thruster and a parachute on entry—similar to past U.S. missions. But it will attempt an incredibly complex maneuver: to pause in mid-descent, 328 feet (100 meters) above the ground, to scan the area and rapidly choose the best landing place. It will then navigate horizontally to that location before descending gently to the planet’s surface.

The 530-pound rover will deploy seven instruments to study the alien landscape—including a radar to search for underground ice and water, a laser tool to study rock composition, and technologies to study charged particles in the atmosphere. The vehicle, which is powered by solar panels, also features two cameras and other detectors. The mission aims to create a geological map of the planet, as well as study soil composition and magnetic fields.

Why the Rush?

There’s a tight window in which to launch these missions because Mars and Earth are at their closest only every 26 months. The rovers need to get off the ground by August 15, 2020—or get put into storage until September 2022.

“That means the least distance to travel, and therefore you require less fuel in your spacecraft,” said Al Amiri. “Typically, spacecraft that are leaving Earth have more than 50 percent of their weight comprised of fuel, which drives costs up and adds a layer of complexity—which is why you would always launch during this window.”

Using the Hohmann transfer orbit to reach Mars efficiently.

One mission will already miss the 2020 window: the Rosalind Franklin rover, which is part of the joint Europe-Russia ExoMars program, developed parachute problems and other difficulties that couldn’t be resolved in time for a launch this year.

The race isn’t going to be easy. More than half of humanity’s missions to the red planet have ended in failure—and of the three contestants, only NASA can claim any success (and its fair share of disappointments too).

“We’re entirely on new ground,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “That’s what makes it so exciting.”


Read more about the next generation of Mars rovers at Mars 2020 Rover Begins Nuclear Fueling Operations.

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