It will be the first to test flight on another planet, in an atmosphere that’s thinner than the Earth’s, and may help our understanding of future human spaceflight beyond the moon.
But, as any engineer will tell you, space is never easy. So, the folks at NASA will be just as tense as their colleagues in the UAE and China.
That said, the US mission is the last of the three scheduled to arrive, so, for now at least, the Americans can sit back, relax, and watch how the others fare.
First up: The Emirates Mars Mission
The Emirates Mars Mission launched a probe called Hope on July 20, 2020, from Tanegashima? Space Centre?, Japan.
Hope is the first Arab interplanetary mission. It aims to provide scientists with a complete picture of the Martian atmosphere. And they promise to share the data.
On February 9, 2021, Hope will begin what’s called a Mars Orbit Insertion (MOI).
The so-called “burn” will commence at 7.30 p.m. Gulf Standard Time (4.30 p.m. CET, 10.30 a.m. EST), and will last “a rather nerve-wracking 27 minutes,” in the words of one EMM spokesperson.
The operation will be fully autonomous because the probe will be 11 minutes’ radio-time away from Earth, “so there’s nothing much we can do about things once we start,” continued the email to DW.
Hope has six thrusters that will provide 650 newtons of power. Firing the thrusters for that long can expose the spacecraft to a lot of stress, from vibrations through to heat. It is “easily the most dangerous operation of the mission,” said the spokesperson.
If all goes well, it will be the proper start of a two Earth-year mission (or one Martian year).
Next up, it’s China with the country’s first independent Mars mission. It was launched on July 23, 2020, from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province.
Tianwen-1 is also expected to enter a Martian orbit during the second week of February. In fact, it’s hoped the Chinese robotic probe will make it the day after the EMM — and two days before the Chinese New Year.
The spacecraft will conduct a “braking” operation to decelerate its speed to a point at which it can be captured by Mars’ gravity. As with the EMM, the Tianwen-1 probe will survey the Martian atmosphere.
But that’s not all. The main part of the mission is scheduled for May when China aims to soft-land a rover in the southern part of Mars’ Utopia Planitia.
China sees Tianwen-1 as a step towards future missions that would bring back rock and soil samples from Mars to Earth.
Third: Perseverance and Ingenuity
The USA’s latest Mars mission involves a new rover called Perseverance and a helicopter called Ingenuity. Ingenuity is strapped to the belly of the rover.
The rover is due to land on February 18 at about 3.55 p.m. EST at a place called Jezero Crater.
It will descend through the Martian atmosphere at a speed of about 20,000 kilometers per hour/kph (12,000 miles per hour). It will be slowed with a parachute and a powered descent to about 3.2 kph.
Then, a large sky crane will lower the rover on three bridle cords until it lands softly on six wheels.
That’s the plan, anyway. NASA has landed a number of rovers on Mars over the years, but as it says itself: “Landing on Mars is hard.”
Race to the Red Planet
NASA describes Perseverance as a “robotic astrobiologist.” It is the largest and “most sophisticated” rover ever sent to the Red Planet’s surface.
Perseverance will look for signs of ancient Martian life. It will also demonstrate technologies for making oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. It is hoped the mission will prepare the ground for future human missions to Mars and our moon.
So, this really is only the very beginning. The fact that we have two large, experienced nations with interplanetary ambitions, in the US and China, plus a relative newcomer - and further US-European and a Japanese Mars mission waiting in the wings - there is a definite sense of a new race beyond what humans have done before in space.
These three missions were timed to launch when the distance between the Earth and Mars was relatively short. It usually takes about nine months to get to Mars, but these missions were able to cut that trip down to seven. And despite the added challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, not one of them missed the opportunity to go.