Once every 26 months, Earth and Mars line up in positions where spacecraft may launch to the Red Planet as easily and cheaply as possible. When this happens again in the summer of 2020, four nations will be sending vehicles to Mars.
In addition to NASA, China, a partnership of the ESA and Russia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will all be sending vehicles to explore the most Earth-like planet in the Solar System. Each of these missions have unique goals and capabilities. Together, they they represent the greatest variety of scientific expeditions ever sent to the Red Planet.
Here’s a look at each of these missions.
NASA — Mars 2020
The Mars 2020 mission, set to release a helicopter on Mars for the first time, could launch as early as July 17th, 2020. If successful, this flight will mark the first time any heavier-than-air craft has flown through the Martian atmosphere.
The 2.46 billion dollar mission will feature a highly-autonomous navigation system. An arm and turret system will collect samples of the Martian crust.
“On Mars, the arm and turret will work together, allowing the rover to work as a human geologist would: by reaching out to interesting geologic features, scraping, analyzing and even collecting them for further study,” NASA officials report.
Samples of Martian rock and soil may be returned to Earth by future spacecraft.
The Mars 2020 mission will take photographic images of Mars, and study the atmosphere of that alien world. A drill will investigate the composition of the Martian crust, searching for signs of life which existed long ago, as well as any microbes which may still be hidden in the Martian permafrost.
The most exciting feature of this mission is the 1.8 kilogram (four pound) helicopter, designed to fly around the atmosphere of the Red Planet.
Landing will be accomplished using an architecture similar to that successfully deployed on the Mars Science Laboratory mission, which brought the Curiosity rover to the Martian surface.
So far, over eight million people have signed up to have their names sent to Mars with the Mars 2020 mission.
European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia — ExoMars 2020
The ExoMars (Exobiology on Mars) program involves a series of missions to understand the history of any life which may have lived on The Red Planet. The ExoMars Rover and landing platform scheduled for launch in 2020 is a joint mission by the ESA and Russia. The $1.45 billion endeavor is focused on finding signs of life, past or present, on Mars.
The spacecraft will launch aboard a Russian Proton rocket, and travel to Mars within an aeroshell. As the vehicle approaches the Martian atmosphere, a descent vehicle will separate from the housing, and parachutes, thrusters, and damping systems will slow the payload for a safe landing on Mars.
Once safely on the surface, samples of the Martian crust will be baked in one of 30 single-use ovens at temperatures up to 900 degrees Celsius (1650 Fahrenheit), and vapors released will be analyzed by a gas chromatograph.
The stationary lander, designed and built by Roscosmos, will drill up to two meters (78 inches) beneath the surface, where life might still hide in ice deposits.
“Once collected, a sample is delivered to the rover’s analytical laboratory, which will perform mineralogical and chemistry determination investigations. Of special interest is the identification of organic substances. The rover is expected to travel several kilometres during its mission,” the European Space Agency (ESA) explains.
The rover is named in honor of Rosalind Franklin, a biologist who carried out critical work on the structure of DNA prior to the announcement by James Watson and Francis Crick of the double helix structure. While the Russian-designed lander looks beneath the surface of Mars, the Rosalind Franklin rover from the ESA will search the top layers for signs of life.
“This name reminds us that it is in the human genes to explore. Science is in our DNA, and in everything we do at ESA. Rosalind the rover captures this spirit and carries us all to the forefront of space exploration,” states ESA Director General Jan Woerner.
With a lander capable of exploring beneath the surface of Mars, and a roving laboratory dedicated to searching for life, the ExoMars 2020 mission will carry out unprecedented science on the Martian surface.
China — Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover (HX-1)
The China National Space Administration (CNSA) is planning their first flight to Mars. This ambitious mission includes an orbiter, lander, and rover.
The orbiter is designed to study the Martian atmosphere, as well as the magnetic field of our tawny-colored planetary neighbor.
The HX-1 rover is expected to explore the surface of Mars for 90 days. The vehicle is designed to search Mars for signs of ancient or modern life, and data could reveal whether or not Mars might be terraformed for human habitation in the future.
The CNSA has yet to choose a landing site, although the craft will likely touch down in one of two locations. The first possible site is the Chryse Planitia, close to the location where Viking 1 and Mars Pathfinder touched down. The second possible landing spot for China’s first Mars mission is the Isidis Planitia, not far from the landing site of Viking 2, as well as the Curiosity spacecraft.
China recently became the first nation to safely land a spacecraft, the Chang’e-4, on the far side of the Moon. They have also invested in a Mars simulation landscape on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau in western China.
This flight will mark the first independent interplanetary flight for the world’s most-populous nation. The lander will be equipped with seven experiments, and the rover will have six experiments to run while on Mars.
In September 2018, the CNSA conducted a full-scale parachute test at supersonic speeds, preparing for the flight. The Chinese space agency reports the parachute deployed successfully, and the flight, launched on a Skyhawk 6 sounding rocket, returned significant data to researchers.
Team members from the Chang’e-3 mission to the near side of the Moon are currently working to develop this new flight to Mars. Given the atmosphere and greater gravity on Mars, touching down on the Red Planet requires a significantly different set of entry, descent and landing (EDL) procedures than a flight to the Moon.
“The EDL sequence carries a lot of risk. Many technologies have to perform perfectly, for the first time: the aeroshell/heat shield, the aerodynamic decelerator (or parachute(s)), position and velocity measurement relative to the ground, and the landing subsystem. Getting any one of these right is a remarkable technical achievement. Getting these all right is what’s necessary to land on Mars, “ states Mason Peck, associate professor at Cornell University and former NASA chief technologist.
United Arab Emirates — Hope Mars Mission
The goal of the Hope Mars mission is to create a planet-wide study of the Martian atmosphere. If successful, the Hope Mars Mission will mark the first mission for the UAE, or any Arab nation, beyond Earth orbit.
This Emirati orbiter is constructed of aluminum, pieced together in a lightweight honeycomb structure. Encasing the electronics is a hexagonal composite casing. This spacecraft, measuring 2.9 meters (9.5 feet) long and 2.37 meters (7.8 feet) wide, weighs 1,500 kilograms (3,300 pounds), roughly the same size and weight as a small car.
During launch, a trio of 600-watt solar panels will be tucked near the sides of the spacecraft. Once the vehicle reaches space, these panels will deploy, and start to collect energy. The amount of energy gathered during ideal conditions will be equivalent to that used by 20 laptop computers.
“Hope will communicate with Mission Control on Earth using a high-gain antenna with a 1.5m [59”] wide dish. This antenna will produce a narrow radio-wave beam that must point directly at Earth in order to make contact. Hope will also have low-gain antennas, which are less directional,” the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre reports.
Alongside a sun tracker, star tracker sensors will examine constellations, directing Hope to the Red Planet. The spacecraft is directed by Delta V thrusters for high-power maneuvers, reaction control systems for smaller changes to its trajectory, and the reaction wheels for precise targeting.
Once at Mars, data speeds will fall until transfers are similar to those experienced on cell phones. Hope will need to guide itself into orbit, as communications between the craft and Earth will be hindered by time delays. During its mission, signals between Hope and mission control will take 13 to 20 minutes to reach their destination.
Billions of years ago, Mars had a much denser atmosphere than it does today, although it is still uncertain how or why this blanket of gases disappeared from the planet. In the modern age, water on Mars exists solely as ice under the surface, and vapor in the atmosphere.
An ultraviolet spectrometer will allow Hope to measure traces of gases in the Martian atmosphere, including oxygen and hydrogen. An infrared spectrometer will examine water vapor, ice, and dust in the atmosphere, as well as temperature patterns. Hope will also carry a camera capable of returning high-resolution images of the Martian surface.
Together, these instruments will study how different layers of Martian atmosphere interact with each other, and show how conditions in the modern age were shaped by ancient climates on the planet.
The Hope Mars mission could answer the questions of how the Martian atmosphere largely disappeared, as well as whether or not it might be replenished for human habitation.
“Mars is the next frontier, what the Wild West was, what America was 500 years ago. It’s time to strike out anew. Mars is where the action is for the next thousand years. The characteristic of human nature, and perhaps our simian branch of the family, is curiosity and exploration. When we stop doing that, we won’t be humans anymore.” — Arthur C. Clarke
Together, these missions headed to Mars in 2020 represent the greatest year yet in the exploration of the Red Planet.
Of the 45 missions launched to Mars, just 19 have been successful, with NASA having, by far, the best track record. Hopefully, each of these unique missions is successful, revealing new answers and questions about the Red Planet.
The summer of 2020 will be filled with expectation, excitement, and suspense as four missions from around the world take off to Mars.
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