Picture: 123RF/PETER JURIK
Picture: 123RF/PETER JURIK

New York — Robots begin an invasion of Mars this week that will take three scientific missions to the planet in quick succession.

On Tuesday, the United Arab Emirates’s (UAE's) Hope probe will reach orbit to study the Red Planet’s atmosphere. The following day, China’s Tianwen-1 mission will start ticking off its audacious to-do list, which includes placing a vehicle on the surface. Next week, US space agency Nasa will attempt to land its largest rover yet — an SUV-sized behemoth —  in an ancient lake bed.

The two landings will be particularly tense, as about 60% of attempts have failed. If China succeeds it would be the third country to mark the achievement, after the US and the former Soviet Union.

The three Mars arrivals have journeyed 471-million kilometres since they were launched in July to capitalise on the alignment of the planet and the Earth. The planets move closest to each other every 26 months, offering the easiest route.

The UAE’s Hope probe, the country’s first excursion into deep space, is a 1.5 tonne orbiter designed as a weather satellite to analyse the dynamic aspects of the atmosphere across the entire planet. The two-year mission also aims to study hydrogen and oxygen in Mars’s upper atmosphere and why those elements are lost to space.

China’s first mission to Mars, meanwhile, is another crucial piece of the nation’s ambitious plans to become a space superpower. Just over two years ago, the country became the first to land successfully on the far side of the moon, which never faces Earth. Tianwen-1 combines an orbiter to map the planet and its geology, a surface lander and a Mars rover. Media reports have said the landing is expected for May.

“If they’re successful, then it will unequivocally put China’s space programme in the top tier,” Dylan Taylor, CEO  of exploration contractor Voyager Space Holdings, told Bloomberg News in 2020. China has said it intends to collect and return Martian samples to Earth by 2030.

Jezero crater

The Nasa's $2.4bn Perseverance rover will land on February 18 in the 45km  Jezero Crater and attempt to determine if the desert planet — which was once awash in water — ever hosted microbial life.

The 3m, 1,025kg  vehicle is the most sophisticated scientific equipment that Nasa has sent to Mars in the 45 years since the agency’s first successful landing with the twin Viking missions.

The Perseverance will carry a roughly 50% bigger scientific payload than past rovers, including 43 sample collection tubes that Nasa hopes to return to Earth at some point. The mission also will include the first attempt to fly a drone, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, on another planet.

First, though, Perseverance has to land successfully.

Rover landings on Mars follow what engineers call “seven minutes of terror”, the period from when the spacecraft reaches the top of the Martian atmosphere at nearly 20,000km/h until it slows to 3.5km/h for touchdown.

The high-precision entry, descent and landing (EDL) sequence involves a supersonic parachute, rocket firings and dropping the rover by cable and severing that tether in 6.6 minutes.

The mission carries a record 25 cameras and microphones that will mark Nasa’s first effort to record the EDL sequence in high-definition video along with the sound of entering the planet’s thin atmosphere. A SuperCam microphone on the rover will listen for wind and the pops from the vehicle’s laser when it fires into rock samples.

“Chemical and mineral sensors have let us taste and smell on Mars,” Nasa says on the mission’s website. “Hearing is the last of the five senses we have yet to exercise on the Red Planet.”


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