Mars made the news three times this week as three countries arrived there within days of each other. Discover the objectives of each mission and their plans to learn about the Red Planet.
The first images were spellbinding. The Viking 1 Lander sent back the first panoramic views of Mars on July 20, 1976.
It was the first time I gave any real thought to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Mars was so far away that nobody knew if it had landed successfully for nineteen minutes.
Even at the speed of light, that was how long it took for radio signals to travel from Mars to Earth. The time lag meant that everyone at NASA was helplessly waiting with bated breath for the news that it had landed safely.
That’s when it sank in for me that the speed of light is constant and that it’s critical to understanding space exploration. Once it had landed, Viking 1 spent four minutes taking a black and white panoramic photograph of its Martian surroundings.
The Demand for this Image Was Overwhelming
The demand for this image was overwhelming, so NASA sent it out to the television networks just thirty minutes after receiving it. My family watched it unfold on our RCA colour TV in the family room, which was an addition on the back of my parents’ quirky old house.
Those were the days of the Space Race when space exploration was a top priority. It had only been seven years since the Apollo 11 moon landing. It seemed to us then that space travel was about to become part of our daily lives.
Fast forward to 2021, and it hasn’t gone that way. Most of us didn’t realize what a massive resource drain those early space missions were. For example, the Viking mission cost close to a billion dollars. The pace of the Space Race wasn’t sustainable.
There’ve Been 49 Missions to Mars
Still, there’ve been 49 missions to Mars. Most of them haven’t captured our imaginations.
Lots of them were failures. I noticed that many people felt oddly sad when we heard that NASA’s first rover, the Mars Pathfinder from 1996, had stopped working in 2020. It was like losing a brave and faithful friend. (No, it wasn’t Covid!)
Mars is all over the news once again this week. Three missions from three different countries arrived at the Red Planet over the past few days, each with its own objectives.
United ARab Emirates Spacecraft in Orbit
First, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced that their spacecraft called the Hope Probe had successfully entered its Martian orbit. The project director of the UAE Mars Mission is Omran Sharaf. Here’s how he announced the news at a press conference.
“We have checked Hope Probe this morning, and all subsystems are working fine. We have finished the most critical and harsh operation (MOI), and we have begun the transition from MOI to orbit phase.”
The team refers to the orbit that the Hope Probe has entered as its “capture orbit.” Over the next couple of months, it will test all of its systems and then shift into a different position that they call the “science orbit.”
Hope Probe SEnt Back Images on Valentine’s Day
The Hope Probe sent back its first images of the Martian surface from orbit on Valentine’s Day. The Hope Probe’s goal is to study the Martian atmosphere.
The UAE’s space program is relatively recent in its development. As readers might expect, this is the first mission to Mars from the Emirates, and it’s big news there.
The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi is Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. He proudly posted the image on Twitter along with a tweet that read, “The transmission of the Hope Probe’s first image of Mars is a defining moment in our history and marks the UAE joining advanced nations involved in space exploration.”
Chinese Vessel Tianwen 1 Arrived
The day after the Hope Probe moved into orbit, the Chinese vessel Tianwen 1 arrived. Tianwen means “Questions to Heaven” in Chinese. Tianwen 1 includes both an orbiter and a rover.
China is following the same mission plan as the early Viking program. They’ve inserted both modules into Martian orbit, and then they’ll release the rover for landing once everything checks out.
The Chinese mission focuses on the geology of Mars. They haven’t given the rover a name yet, but no doubt the vehicle will get most of the attention with its remote sensing instruments.
Chinese Mission Focuses on the Geology of Mars
Even so, the orbiter is an equal partner in the mission. It will be studying the planet’s surface from space and, like the Hope Probe, it will also be exploring the Red Planet’s atmosphere. However, the Hope Probe will be doing this in more detail.
And now, NASA’s new Mars rover Perseverance has touched down on the Martian surface in the Jezebo Crater region. This mission consists of the lander, which they call InSight, Perseverence and a small helicopter. The helicopter is named Ingenuity.
Ingenuity is there as a demonstration on this mission. It won’t have much work to do; NASA sent it this time to make sure it works in the Martian atmosphere.
Perseverance Is Focused on Finding Signs of Life
All of Perseverance’s systems are running correctly. This morning, NASA also announced that Ingenuity has reported that it’s working as expected, including its all-important batteries.
Perseverance is heavily focused on finding signs of life on Mars. It will also be collecting samples of regolith (that’s the proper term for the dirt there). Perseverance will store these samples carefully because there’s a plan to put them on a future spacecraft and bring them back to Earth someday.
That was a frustrating aspect of the Viking missions. They could only perform the experiments they were programmed to do. Scientists couldn’t get their hands on the samples to test them in other ways that suggested themselves.
Perseverance Follows Spirit and Opportunity
Perseverance is the successor to NASA’s two earlier rovers from 2003. The two vehicles were identical in design. Their names were Spirit and Opportunity.
Both rovers have stopped working now. NASA has lost contact with Opportunity. Spirit has a broken wheel and seems to be stuck in place. Its computer is malfunctioning, but it can still communicate.
Despite all of the advances made in space travel, one constraint still affects the missions. The speed of light is always constant, and the time it takes signals to travel back and forth still makes remote control frustrating.
Eleven Minutes to Send and Eleven Minutes to Receive
Because of Earth and Mars’s positions right now, it takes eleven minutes to send a message and another eleven minutes to get an answer.
This means that we still can’t control the rovers or the orbiters and steer them in real-time. At least today’s engineers have a name for the problem. It’s now called the “one way light time” between two planets.
Space exploration seems to satisfy two basic needs for humanity. It provides us with hero’s journey stories, which we seem to crave. It also feeds our insatiable curiosity about whether we’re alone in the Universe.
Astronauts Have Always Played Heroes’ Roles
Astronauts have always played heroes’ roles, and they still do that on the International Space Station. As I mentioned, we now get attached to our robotic explorers. We vaguely mourn their passage when their mechanical lives come to an end in our service.
Understanding the geology and climate of Mars will give astrobiologists greater insight into how planets form and function. This will help them to target worlds beyond our solar system for study.
Honestly, at the heart of space exploration, it seems everyone is curious about the possibility of intelligent life out there somewhere. Mars has been a particular driver of our curiosity because, in many ways, it’s similar to our home planet.
Finding Microbial Life There Would Be Mind-Expanding
Finding microbial life there would be a mind-expanding moment for us. It would be as life-changing as my generation seeing the Whole Earth photograph from space taken by the Apollo astronauts.
The Crown Prince concluded his message by saying, ““We hope this mission will lead to new discoveries about Mars which will benefit humanity.”
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Journey of Hope Probe
Tianwen 1 makes orbital correction as Mars arrival draws near
Touchdown! NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover Safely Lands on Red Planet
NASA Discovery Program: Four Bids to Explore Solar System
Space Travel and Astronomy Enjoy a Busy Week
Apollo 13: The Hero’s Journey as Successful Failure