Mars is getting to be a busy place. The United Arab Emirates Mars Mission Al Amal (Hope) drops into orbit February 9. China’s Tianwen-1 (Quest for Heavenly Truth 1) arrives the next day, and NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, with the Perseverance rover, will circle the red planet next Thursday, February 18. The three spacecraft join seasoned veterans like NASA’s Mars Odyssey (20 years in orbit), Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (14 years in orbit), and Maven (seven years in orbit), not to mention ESA’s Mars Express (17 years in orbit), Indian Space Research Organization’s Mars Orbital Mission (six years in orbit), and the ESA/Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (five years in orbit) — still transmitting data back to Earth.
Al Amal, billed as the very first weather satellite on Mars, will circle the equator every nine days, analyzing the Martian atmosphere, weather, climate, and seasonal changes. Its mission is designed to run through 2023 and could be extended through 2025.
While Mars 2020 and Tianwen-1 have similar missions — to search for signs of life and explore local geologies — they have distinctly different architectures.
The Mars 2020 mission has more moving parts: a heat shield, the Ingenuity helicopter, the Perseverance Rover, a rocket-powered sky crane descent stage, and a parachute-mounted back shell, all slung underneath the solar powered cruise stage. The entire package launched from Cape Canaveral atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V541. Arriving in Mars orbit, the cruise stage will inject the remaining modules into the atmosphere, heat shield first. Parachutes deploy, the heat shield drops away, the back shell is jettisoned, and the sky crane rockets ignite, dropping the Perseverance down on tethers for a gentle landing. On landing, the sky crane releases the tethers and rockets off to crash a safe distance away.
In addition to searching for signs of ancient microbial life and stacking core samples for eventual return to Earth, Perseverance will deploy its solar-powered helicopter, Ingenuity, and MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) to test technologies for producing oxygen from Mars’ carbon dioxide atmosphere.
Tianwen 1 combines a deployable camera satellite, orbiter, lander, and wheeled rover, launched on a Long March 5 rocket from Wenchang spaceport. It will remain in Mars orbit for three months, mapping the planet’s surface before deploying its lander/rover, which uses a heat shield, retrorockets, parachutes, and air bags to achieve a survivable landing. The orbiter will continue its surveying missions, with an expected life span of two years. The little yet-to-be-named rover (the results of a global naming contest is expected to be announced February 28) is expected to last three months, patrolling, collecting samples, measuring water-ice distribution, and mapping the Utopia Planitia basin.
Just as the orbiters weren’t alone in the vacuum of space, Perseverance won’t be alone on the surface itself. NASA’s Curiosity rover is still mobile, rolling up and down crater rims, and its InSight lander continues its scientific missions. The population of operational robotic explorers expands to four when Tianwen-1 touches down sometime in May.
In addition to exhausted orbiters that added fresh craters to the Martian surface, the planet is strewn with the remains of landers and rovers that crashed or failed on landing, like the USSR’s Mars 2, Mars 3, and Mars 6 descent modules, NASA’s Polar Lander, and the European Space Agency’s Beagle 2. Some, like NASA’s Viking 1 and Viking 2, Sojourner, Spirit, Phoenix, and Opportunity, were successfully retired after exceeding projected life spans. Discarded heat shields, parachutes, air bags and delivery platforms also litter the Martian landscape.
Not quite a Star Trek Convention, but still, there’s a lot of stuff up there.
Hollywood script writers milk the heck out of plot lines of marooned astronauts using derelict landers as life boats or shelters until help can arrive. And it’s an attractive concept. After spending all that time and treasure, it’s comforting to think that the expensive hardware might have some remaining utility. Alas. Non-compatible power sources, obsolete technology (some of the earlier probes actually had vacuum tubes), proprietary programming, and unsupported communication systems render such literary conceits unlikely.
Even so, Mars is a busy place nowadays, and it’s likely to get a lot busier.
China will certainly be back as its space program progresses from “landing, orbiting, and returning” to “surveying, constructing, and exploiting.”
Japan plans to launch its Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) sample return mission by 2024 and return samples to Earth by 2031. SpaceX is also targeting 2024 for Starship Mars launches.
I am unaware of serious Russian aspirations to revisit the red planet – but they may well join the multi-national land rush over the course of the next few launch windows.
NASA’s next launch (Mars Sample Return Mission, MSR) is planned for July 2026. That is, if the Biden administration doesn’t cut their funding. A partnership between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), MSR is designed to retrieve the core samples so patiently acquired and stacked up by Perseverance. Like Mars 2020, MSR has a lot of moving parts. The plan calls for NASA to launch their lander, followed by the ESA’s launch of its Earth Return Orbiter two months later. NASA’s lander would land near Perseverance in Jezero crater in October 2027, delivering an ESA-designed “fetch” rover that will pick up the stacked samples, return them to the lander, and be launched back into orbit. The ESA Earth Return Orbiter would reach Mars in August 2028, receive the samples, and return to Earth, splashing down sometime in 2031.
The dynamics of Mars exploration are shifting into unexpected avenues. After President Barack Obama shut down NASA’s manned space exploration programs, the only route to space for U.S. astronauts was onboard Soviet spacecraft. A robust state space program is essential to support national security strategies while advancing our economic leadership.
President Trump reestablished the National Space Council, reinvigorated NASA, stood up the U.S. Space Force, and empowered commercial crew launch capabilities (SpaceX).
Japan gets it. The ESA gets it. India and the United Arab Emirates get it. China definitely gets it. Russia gets it but seems to be on the sidelines for now.
Sadly, for the last 50 years, short-sighted political gamesmanship has locked NASA into repetitive cycles of feast and famine as successive Republican administrations are forced to repair and replenish NASA budgets following Democrat administration sabotage. If the Biden–Harris administration follows Obama’s lead, America’s national space program may never regain lost ground. With the breathtaking acceleration of current advances in space-related science and technology, dropping out for four years now may will mean leaving the field forever.
Is it important which Earth nation dominates Mars? China thinks so.
Oh, the U.S. will likely still get to Mars, but it may be aboard U.S.-flagged commercial vessels. Corporate blocs will soon be able to purchase or rent a SpaceX launcher, a Blue Origin lander, a “Mobile Autonomous Prospecting Platform” from Lunar Outpost, or even human habitat modules from Foster and Partners.
And if the Biden–Harris administration fails to demonstrate the necessary resolve to support these efforts, the dominant language on the red planet may well be Mandarin.
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