How times have changed since the Apollo era. Two space missions from China and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are expected to reach Mars within a few days. The UAE’s Hope mission will go into orbit around Mars on February 9th. The next day, China’s Tianwen-1 mission – an orbiter and lander – will go into orbit with an estimated landing date sometime in May.
It is a very big moment for both countries. Hope is the first ever interplanetary mission by an Arab nation. And if China succeeds, it will be the first country to visit Mars on the first try and land on Mars. The odds are against them, almost 50% of all Mars missions fail. China lost a Mars orbiter mission (Yinghuo-1) back in 2011.
But before the missions can begin science, tense moments await. When they arrive on the planet, they have to set off their engines to burn at just the right time to slow down the probes so they can be captured by Mars’ gravitational field. Due to the great distance from the earth, this must be done automatically by the probe.
If all goes well, the orbiter Tianwen, which means “questions to the sky,” and the as-yet-unnamed rover will attempt to measure the Martian climate and the “ionosphere,” a layer of electrically charged particles that surround the planet. This work could help understand how Mars is losing its atmosphere. But it will also aid future crewed missions to Mars by exploring its surface and mapping its shape, geology and internal structure.
The orbiter is equipped with cameras, a magnetometer (for measuring magnetic fields) and various particle analyzers. It also acts as a relay station to keep in touch with the rover. The rover, the size of a small car, is only slightly smaller than the NASA Perseverance rover, which is also approaching Mars. It looks similar, with a six-wheel drive, large solar panels, and a pole with cameras. The latter can identify surface compositions at a distance between two and five meters.
What makes this mission even more fascinating is that the rover includes a ground penetrating radar. During the rover’s estimated lifespan of 90 Mars days – a Mars day is almost 38 minutes longer than ours – it can explore the underground structure and look for water deposits underground. The European Mars Express Orbiter found evidence of underground saltwater lakes using radar in 2018, but never took measurements on the surface.[Read: How much does it cost to buy, own, and run an EV? It’s not as much as you think]
The rover will not visit these specific locations but could find similar conditions at the proposed landing site, which we know was previously covered by mudflats. There is great interest in such deposits as they represent a resource for future astronauts on the planet. We also cannot rule out that the lakes could harbor some form of life.
China has already used radar technology with great success on its latest Yutu-2 rover to identify individual layers of water ice up to 40 m below the surface of the moon.
The Chinese National Space Administration announced that the rover will land in the region known as Utopia Planitia, the largest known impact basin in the solar system. For the first three months, the orbiter will monitor and identify the exact location.
Oddly enough, following the successful launch of the mission, a press release initially stated the intended coordinates within Utopia Planitia (110.318 degrees east and 24.748 degrees north), but these were quickly removed, possibly to ensure that this would not contradict a minor change later – or with political motivation. Alfred McEwen, director of the Planetary Image Research Laboratory at the University of Arizona, told Space.com that the intended landing site is safe and scientifically very interesting.
China’s first Mars rover has to go through the so-called seven minutes of terror: the automated descent of a lander through the Martian atmosphere in order to successfully decelerate and land in one go, without active communication with an orbiter or ground control. To achieve this, an initial deceleration is done with a “conical aeroshell,” which is a protective shield that creates drag (drag) but heats up immensely, followed by a parachute and then firing retrorockets for one soft touch to allow down.
The Hope Mission is the UAE’s first interplanetary mission to arrive on Mars coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the UAE’s founding. This mission launched from Japan in July 2020 with the same “launch window” (the time when the distance between Earth and Mars is less) to reach Mars as the missions in China and NASA.
Hope will orbit Mars for a Martian year – almost two Earth years. The Martian atmosphere is examined more closely from distances between 22,000 km and 44,000 km. The mission will study global weather, its connections to the upper atmosphere, and how this may explain the changing abundance of hydrogen and oxygen there. This will help us understand how Mars is gradually losing its atmosphere and the role dust plays in Martian weather – also important information for those who would like to settle on Mars one day.
These busy times for anyone interested in Mars exploration began by two relative newcomers to the treasonous business of Mars exploration and offer a welcome, fresh perspective. It’s great to see the group of nations exploring Mars expand. And if you haven’t had enough of seeing these missions, sit back for a few days until the NASA Perseverance rover comes to you on February 18th.
This article by Daniel Brown, professor of astronomy at Nottingham Trent University, is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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