Mars: Why are there three uncrewed missions to the red planet in 2020?

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Mars is expected to have a lot of visitors. Three missions took advantage of the July 2020 Mars launch window. In addition to Nasa, there are also Mars newbies. So, who is going to Mars in 2020?

In 2020 three space missions took off in order to explore Mars. The probes will follow an elliptical Earth-Mars transfer orbit called a Hohmann transfer orbit. After flying for around seven months, Mars’ gravity will eventually capture the probes and move into its orbit.

The optimal launch window was from mid-July to mid-August this year. It offered the most fuel-efficient orbit. During this time, the Earth and Mars move in a relatively short distance, but not the shortest. Missions are launched about two months before Mars opposition. In addition to Nasa, China and the United Arab Emirates also launched Mars missions.

Mars 2020 launch window

Research institutions around the world worked feverishly towards summer 2020. As a result, space agencies set off different missions to Mars in order to further explore it. The focus was on the months of July and August 2020. During this time, Mars and Earth are relatively close to each other, but not in opposition. As a result, flight to Mars only takes between six and ten months.

Most fuel-efficient orbit to Mars.
Most fuel-efficient orbit to Mars

This most fuel-efficient orbit opens every 26 months for around four to six weeks. If you miss it, you have to wait more than two years – or accept a significantly longer and therefore more expensive flight to Mars.

The US space agency Nasa launched a successor to Curiosity mission to the red planet on 30 July 2020. The Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover will touch down in Jezero crater on Mars on 18 February 2021. One of the main objectives of this mission is to search for signs of ancient microbial life. These future findings will advance NASA’s quest to explore the past habitability of Mars.

Exploring planet Mars: Nasa and ESA are the most experienced

Both NASA and ESA already have experience in Mars exploration. ESA is currently controlling two probes orbiting Mars – the Mars Express and TGO. So far European landing missions have always gone wrong – most recently the crash-landing of the ExoMars Schiaparelli module in 2016.

To date, NASA has the most experience with Mars landings. Viking 1 was the first spacecraft to land on Mars in 1976. Many more missions were to follow. The best-known include Mars Pathfinder and Sojourner. The twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity and of course Curiosity, the only NASA rover still active on Mars. InSight lander, was the most recent addition. It landed on Mars at the end of 2018 and is taking daily weather measurements (temperature, wind, pressure) on the surface of Mars.

Newcomers to Martian exploration

Against this extensive Mars know-how, the other two nations that launched Mars missions in 2020 look pale. China is attempting landing on the red planet for the first time. The nation has had some successful landings on the moon, but Mars is uncharted territory for China.

The Tianwen-1 mission was launched atop a Long March 5 rocket from Hainan Island’s Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on July 23, 2020. The mission consists of an orbiter and a rover duo, a combination of equipment that had never before launched together toward the Red Planet. The spacecraft is expected to land on the Red Planet in February 2021. TW-1 rover will collect science data using seven science instruments. Two cameras, the Mars-Orbiting Subsurface Exploration Radar, Mars Mineralogy Spectrometer, Mars Magnetometer, Mars Ion and Neutral Particle Analyzer and Mars Energetic Particle Analyzer.

The fourth aspiring nation is even more inexperienced. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) have not yet been able to provide any evidence of space travel experience. It is the first time they attempt to place a probe in orbit around Mars. The Hope orbiter was launched on 19 July 2020 and is expected to reach Mars in 2021. The Emirates Mars Mission will be the first probe to provide a complete picture of the Martian atmosphere and its layers. It will help answer key questions about the global Martian atmosphere. In particular, the loss of hydrogen and oxygen into space over the span of one Martian year.

It’s very difficult to land on Mars

Since scientists were exploring Mars for a long time, quite a lot is known about it. Among other things, it is extremely difficult to land there. According to NASA, only 40% of all missions launched to Mars have so far been successful. The landing is particularly tough because the atmospheric pressure on Mars is less than one percent of the pressure on earth. This means that space probes fall to the ground very quickly and have to be braked very strongly in a very short time.

Another problem is the great distance between Earth and Mars. The communication between the control center and space probe cannot take place in real time due to the distance. Probes have to carry out the landing autonomously.

In this regard, Nasa has an advantage over the other Mars missions. The Curiosity rover successfully landed on the red planet in August 2012 and is still exploring it. The design of Curiosity forms the basis of the new Perseverance rover launched in 2020.

NASA’s Perseverance rover is supposed to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen

Among other things, Perseverance rover uses the same type of heat shield that did its job well for Curiosity. The landing technology called Sky Crane is also adopted, as well as the frame of the chassis. Only the wheels and the scientific equipment differ. The wheels have been improved so that they are more robust.

One of the scientific instruments on board is the SuperCam, which examines rocks and soils with a camera, laser and spectrometers. Its purpose is to seek organic compounds that could be related to past life on Mars. It can identify the chemical and mineral makeup of targets as small as a pencil point from a distance.

RIMFAX, a ground-penetrating radar with high resolution is set to investigate the geological structures in the subsurface of Mars. Additionally, various sensors are to measure values ​​such as temperature and wind speed. Particularly fascinating, the Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE) is intended to convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into oxygen. This is a technology demonstration intended in preparation for future manned Mars missions.

Mars 2020 Perseverance rover brings a small helicopter to planet Mars

The Perseverance rover will also bring a small helicopter to the surface. This is also a technology demonstration. The helicopter is attached to the bottom of the rover. It is only intended to demonstrate that an autonomous, controlled flight is possible in the very thin Martian atmosphere. If this succeeds, aircraft should also be brought to Mars in the future.

The mission goal of the Mars 2020 rover is similar to the goals of previous Mars rovers. It is to find out whether Mars was once able to support life. In addition, NASA wants to find out whether there are conserved bio signatures in accessible geological material. The rover is to take samples to be returned to Earth on a possible future mission.

China 2020 Mars mission

While ESA already has some experience with Mars, China set off for Mars for the first time in 2020. A rocket of the Long March 5 type launched the Tianwen-1 probe to Mars in July 2020. This is a combination of Mars orbiter, lander and rover, which is primarily used to test innovative technologies. Since the Chinese space travel agency has only visited the moon so far, the goals of the mission are very basic. To descend through the Martian atmosphere and master the difficult landing on the red planet. Another challenge is that the rover and lander have to act largely autonomously.

If the landing succeeds, Yinghuo-2 will research the topography and geological composition of Mars and create high-resolution maps of selected areas. There are also plans to study the Martian rocks and find out how water ice is distributed in them. Basic measurements are also part of the mission’s tasks: the ionosphere, space weather and the surface weather of Mars are to be observed. The internal structure is also of interest. The mission is to measure the magnetic and gravitational fields of Mars and explore its early geological history. For this purpose, orbiters and rovers have numerous scientific instruments on board.

United Arab Emirates 2020 Mars mission

The Mars mission of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is particularly exciting. The space probe al-Amal (Hope) is to be carried into space with a Japanese launch vehicle. Hope is the first Mars mission by a West Asian country and a country with a Muslim or Arab majority.

The UAE’s Hope probe is scheduled to reach Mars in 2021. A team of Emirati engineers and foreign research institutes are involved in the mission. The task that the Mars probe is supposed to fulfill is relatively simple. It is supposed to investigate the daily climate and seasonal climate cycles on Mars, as well as weather events in the low Martian atmosphere. In addition, Hope rover is to explore how Mars lost a large part of its atmosphere.

Indeed, 2020 is an exciting year for space travel, and 2021 will be in no way inferior. Provided everything goes as planned, the three missions will reach Mars in spring 2021 and begin their work. Many researchers are already looking forward to the new data from Mars – because the red planet has been of interest to mankind for ages.

Profile: Mars – the red planet

Mars is the fourth planet from the sun and a relatively close neighbor of earth. It is considered an Earth-like planet. Mars is about half the size of Earth – it is the second smallest planet in the solar system after Mercury.

Two moons orbit the red planet: Phobos and Deimos. Temperatures on Mars are extreme. In winter, near the poles temperatures can get down to minus 195 degrees F (minus 125 degrees C). A summer day on Mars may get up to 70 degrees F (20 degrees C) near the equator. At night the temperature can plummet to about minus 100 degrees F (minus 73 C). Mars is named after the Roman god of war – among other things because of its red color. It can be seen in the night sky with the naked eye.

Current research on the planet Mars

Is there life on Mars? That’s the big question researchers are asking. Nasa chief scientist Jim Green maintains that researchers will soon find the answer to the question of life on Mars. A researcher involved in NASA’s Viking missions sees things a little differently. He argues that NASA found life on Mars back in 1976.

Mars also keeps puzzling researchers. Scientists are currently perplexed by a phenomenon that they discovered with the help of the Mars lander InSight. It appears that Mars’ magnetic field pulsates occasionally at midnight. There is yet another mystery that researchers have not yet been able to explain. With the help of the Curiosity rover, scientists have discovered that the oxygen content in the atmosphere of Mars fluctuates. Where does oxygen come from on Mars – and where does it go?

Researchers were able to answer one question with the help of the European TGO: How does Mars lose its water? The Mars orbiter TGO has also discovered a phenomenon in the atmosphere of the red planet that has been suspected for 40 years. It detected that the Mars atmosphere glows green.

Future Mars missions

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of the company SpaceX, will launch his first unmanned Starship mission to Mars in 2024. This would be the first step to begin building a permanent human settlement on our red planet.

Musk made this announcement at the 2020 Mars Society Virtual Convention. The businessman intends to take advantage of the launch window that arises every 26 months for his first mission to the red planet. Next launch window opens in 2022, but Musk, with his prototypes still in their infancy, would have to wait for 2024.

The mission will launch on the Starship vehicle, the powerful 50-meter long reusable spacecraft currently under development at the company’s South Texas facility. SpaceX also plans to use Starship for missions to the Moon starting in 2022 and for trips around Earth. This year, SpaceX has already carried out two test missions with prototypes of the Starship. Both SN5 and SN6 test vehicles reached about the same altitude and moved the same short distance. Another test mission, Starship SN8 is preparing for a second Static Fire test.

Esa and Roscosmos want to complete the ExoMars mission

In cooperation with the Russian space agency (Roscosmos), ESA was planning to complete the ExoMars mission in 2020. However, it has been rescheduled for 2022 because of the Coronavirus pandemic. This mission comprises two stages. The Trace Gas Orbiter was launched in 2016 while the second, comprising a rover and surface platform, is planned for 2022. Together they will address whether life has ever existed on Mars. The second launch is scheduled to take off on 20 September (12 day launch window) and land on Mars on 10 June 2023.

Kazachok and Rosalind Franklin rovers

In 2016 the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) entered an orbit around Mars, but the landing of the test rover Schiaparelli went wrong. That should go better this time. The Rosalind Franklin rover will be carried to Mars by a Russian rocket in 2022. Designed for at least seven months, the mission consists of the Russian landing module Kazachok and the ESA Rosalind Franklin. The rover will travel four kilometers on Mars, and communicate with the earth via TGO as a relay.

The rover’s scientific instruments include a panoramic camera on board. It is designed to aid navigation while looking for signatures of previous biological activities that took place on the surface of the red planet. There is also an infrared spectrometer and a ground penetrating radar. The second part of the ExoMars mission has already been postponed from 2018 to 2020. During the tests of the parachutes that enable the landing of Rosalind Franklin, ESA encountered several problems. ESA should fix these before the rover can actually set off for the red planet.

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