Three Countries to Mars (and two to the surface)

The United States of America launched a new and more advanced copy of their currently operating Mars rover to the red planet yesterday morning (July 30,2020). The new rover, called “Perseverance” is the third and last launch to Mars from Earth for this launch window. ESA’s Mars mission isn’t ready yet (due to COVID-19 related delays) and so will have to wait until the fall or so of 2022.

Mars orbits the Sun with the Earth and at a different speed. It is far away right now, but spends most of it’s time very, very far away and so we only launch spacecraft at it as our planet zooms past it once every twenty-six months or so (780 days).

The United Arab Emirates went first on July 19th, sending an orbiter to study the weather on Mars, along with its loss of trace gases. It is partnering with several universities in the U.S. in this endeavor along with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (which provided the launch), KinetX Aerospace in Arizona (navigation), and NASA (communications). It will arrive at Mars in February of 2021.

China wants to join the elite Mars surface club. Getting spacecraft safely to Mars is hard, but landing them is tricky on top of hard. They launched an orbiter and rover in the same flight on July 23rd and will arrive in Mars orbit in February of 2021. Besides the usual activities of updating current knowledge on maps, atmosphere, soil composition and the like, they will also be testing technology for a future sample return mission.

NASA’s Perseverance Rover has improved wheels, a robotic arm, and an experimental helicopter called “Ingenuity” and will explore Jezero crater, the site of a lake in ancient times. It also arrives on the Mars surface in February 2021. There was a little problem right after launch where the spacecraft mistakenly went into safe mode due to temperature on the dark side of Earth orbit. The problem was quickly corrected and will not impact the mission.

Searching for life on Mars is a stated goal for all if these missions, but just succeeding in whatever mission they do will advance Mars access and science in general tremendously. I for one look forward to yet another country (China) successfully arriving and landing, proving that Mars science has become well enough understood that it can be done without assistance from NASA. The only other country to do a landing on Mars was Russia, who did it first with a short-lived lander back in 1971. If successful therefore, China will be one of only three. Never before have three separate countries successfully launched for Mars in the same year.

I can’t wait until February to report on the successful arrivals of these spacecraft. Never before have the UAE or China thrown a Mars shot and it’ll be great to see more successes on Mars.

~ by Bill Housley on July 31, 2020.

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