Missions to Mars

Written in the stars: All three missions launched while Earth and Mars were closest together.

After seven months of travelling through space, three rival space robot probes are set to reach Mars within days of one another. What does each mission hope to achieve on the red planet?

  • What’s happening?

    Yesterday, at 3:42pm, the UAE space agency’s “Hope” probe started to burn 50% of its fuel. Twenty-six minutes later, it entered Mars’ gravitational pull. It was a successful end to a journey of more than 481 million km and 204 days – and is a first for the country. But the probe will not be alone for long.

    It is one of three separate missions due to arrive on our neighbouring planet within three weeks. Later today, if all goes to plan, a Chinese lander – part of the Tianwen-1 mission – will touch down on the red soil. And in just over a week, on 18 February, the NASA Perseverance rover will join it.

  • Why now?

    Because the chance to fly there only comes around occasionally. Mars and Earth are on very different orbits. As it is further from the sun, Mars has a much longer year – around 687 days. So, while we think of Mars as a close neighbour, it is often very far away. In fact, for much of the time, our planets are on opposite sides of the sun and 54.6 million km apart.

    But every 26 months, the orbits align. For a short time, we are less than 34 million km away from our neighbour. For anyone planning a trip to Mars, this is the time to go. And that is precisely what happened last July, when all three space agencies launched their missions.

  • Has anyone done this before?

    Yes! There have been 49 Mars missions since 1960 – although many have failed. The Soviet Union became the first country to land a spacecraft on the surface in 1971. The Mars 3 Lander successfully transmitted a partial image before losing contact 14.5 seconds later.

    NASA is the leading space agency when it comes to rovers. So far, it has sent four. Curiosity, a 2012 mission, is still active. For China and the UAE though, Mars missions are a first.

  • What will they be doing on Mars?

    Each mission is designed to gather different types of information. Tianwen-1 is due to land in the area known as Utopia Planitia. It will investigate the geology and discover more about the history of the planet using radar that can penetrate 100m below the surface.

    Meanwhile, Perseverance will be looking for signs of life. Engineers have built a seven-metre arm that will be able to collect and store samples. Although Perseverance will never leave Mars, the plan is to collect them and return them to Earth on later missions.

  • Are they just rovers?

    No. “Hope” is not a rover at all. It will stay in orbit around the planet, collecting information and sending it back to mission control. It will measure atmospheric changes and weather patterns to understand what life could be like on the planet.

    China’s Tianwen-1 mission is not just a rover either. When the lander breaks off to travel to the ground, part of it will stay above ground and orbit the planet. However, it is less clear what exactly the probe will be measuring as China has kept its plans quiet.

  • Are humans next?

    Maybe! With every successful mission, we learn more about what to expect on the rusty planet. Plus, as the success rate goes up, it is looking ever more likely that humans could be making the trip soon. But it probably won’t be big national space agencies that get there first.

    Elon Musk’s SpaceX looks set to win the race. The company is busy building starships – totally reusable rockets capable of transporting 100 passengers at a time. If they work, whole cities of people could be setting up on Mars for life. In December last year, Musk said it was highly likely there would be humans on Mars by 2026. “If we get lucky,” he added, “maybe four years”.

You Decide

  1. Would you move to Mars if you had the chance?

Activities

  1. Design and label a robot probe that could be sent to another planet with a specific mission. Think about the climate on the planet as you create your design. How will the probe achieve its goals?

Word Watch

UAE
The United Arab Emirates is a country in the Middle East formed of a federation of states. It turns 50 later this year.
Burn
In order to slow down enough to enter orbit, the spacecraft had to burn off half of its fuel. For over 20 minutes, Hope was running remotely, while experts at mission control waited to regain contact.
Tianwen-1
Tianwen is a Chinese word meaning “questions to heaven”. It is taken from the name of an ancient poem by Qu Yuan.
NASA
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is an independent agency of the US government. It is responsible for the US space programme, as well as research.
Year
The time taken by a planet to make one revolution around the sun. Mars is further away and therefore takes more than twice as long as Earth.
Rovers
A motor vehicle that travels across the surface of the planet on arrival. They have large wheels and strong suspension – and move very slowly for safety.
Curiosity
Launched in 2012, Curiosity is still active and currently climbing Mount Sharp – a three-mile peak in the centre of a crater.
First
China has previously succeeded in landing a spacecraft on the dark side of the Moon. For the UAE, Hope marks the first space mission in the Arab world.
Utopia Planitia
A plain inside Utopia, the largest discovered impact basin on Mars. It is unknown what caused the crater, which is over 3,300km wide.
Atmospheric
Relating to the atmosphere. Hope will orbit higher than previous Mars orbiters, which will allow it to capture the whole atmosphere of the planet in one image.

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