Three countries – the United States, China and the United Arab Emirates – are sending unmanned spacecraft to the Red Planet in rapid succession starting this week, in the most radical effort to date for signs of ancient microscopic life while exploring the place of future astronauts.
The United States, on the other hand, is shipping a car-sized six-wheeled rover, named Perseverance, to collect rock samples that will be brought back to Earth for analysis in about a decade.
“Right now, more than ever, this name is so important,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine as preparations continue amid the coronavirus epidemic, which will minimize the list. launch guests.
Each spacecraft will travel more than 300 million miles (483 million km) before reaching Mars next February. It takes at least six to seven months for a spacecraft to exit Earth’s orbit and synchronize with the more distant orbit of Mars around the sun.
Scientists want to know what Mars looked like billions of years ago, when it had rivers, lakes and oceans that may have allowed tiny, simple organisms to thrive before the planet turned into a desert winter desert as it is today.
“Trying to confirm that life existed on another planet is a daunting challenge. He has a very high burden of proof, ”said Ken Farley, persistence project scientist, from Caltech in Pasadena, California.
The three almost simultaneous launches are no coincidence: the timing is dictated by the opening of a month-long window in which Mars and Earth are in ideal alignment on the same side of the sun, which minimizes travel time and fuel consumption. Such a window only opens once every 26 months.
Mars has long had a strong hold on the imagination but has proven to be the cemetery of many missions. The spacecraft exploded, burned or crashed, the casualty rate over the decades exceeding 50%. China’s latest attempt, in collaboration with Russia in 2011, was unsuccessful.
Only the United States has successfully placed a spacecraft on Mars, doing so eight times, starting with the Vikings twins in 1976. Two NASA landers are now operating there, InSight and Curiosity. Six other spacecraft explore the planet from orbit: three American, two European and one Indian.
The United Arab Emirates and China are looking to join the elite club.
The United Arab Emirates spacecraft, named Amal, which is Arab for Hope, is an orbiter that is expected to depart from Japan on Wednesday, local time, on what will be the first interplanetary mission in the Arab world. The spacecraft, built in partnership with the University of Colorado Boulder, will arrive on Mars the year the United Arab Emirates mark the 50th anniversary of its founding.
“The United Arab Emirates wanted to send a very strong message to Arab youth,” said project manager Omran Sharaf. “The message here is that if the UAE can reach Mars in less than 50 years, you can do much more. … The good thing about space is that it sets very high standards. ”
Controlled from Dubai, the celestial weather station will strive to reach an exceptionally high Martian orbit of 13,670 miles by 27,340 miles (22,000 kilometers by 44,000 kilometers) to study the upper atmosphere and monitor climate change.
China will be the next step, with the flight of a rover and an orbiter around July 23; Chinese officials do not disclose much. The mission is called Tianwen, or Questions for Heaven.
NASA, meanwhile, plans to launch on July 30 from Cape Canaveral.
Perseverance should arise in an ancient river delta and lake known as the Jezero Crater, not as large as Lake Okeechobee in Florida. China’s much smaller mobile will aim for an easier, flatter goal.
To reach the surface, the two spacecraft will have to dive into the foggy red sky of Mars in what has been dubbed “seven minutes of terror” – the most difficult and risky part of placing spacecraft on the planet.
The Jezero crater is full of rocks, cliffs, sand dunes and depressions, one of which could end the mission of Perseverance. All-new parachute guidance and trigger technology will help keep the craft away from danger. Ground controllers will be helpless, given the 10 minutes it takes for radio transmissions to travel one way between Earth and Mars.
The Jezero crater is worth the risk, according to scientists who have chosen it from over 60 other potential sites.
Where there was water – and Jezero was apparently at the water’s edge 3.5 billion years ago – there may have been life, though it was probably just a simple microbial life, which perhaps existed in a sticky film at the bottom of the crater. But these microbes may have left revealing traces in the sediment layers.
Perseverance will chase away rocks containing such biological signatures, if they exist.
He will drill in the most promising rocks and store half a kilogram (about 1 pound) of samples in dozens of titanium tubes which will eventually be recovered by another rover. To prevent terrestrial microbes from contaminating samples, the tubes are super-sterilized, guaranteed germ-free by Adam Stelzner, chief engineer for the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
“Yes, I am putting my reputation on the line,” he said.
While lurking on the surface, Perseverance and the Chinese rover will take a look below, using a radar to locate any underground water pools that may exist. Perseverance will also launch a squeaky 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) helicopter, which will be the first rotorcraft to fly on another planet.
The Perseverance cameras will film a color video of the descent of the rover, offering at the first glance of humanity a parachute which soars on Mars, while microphones capture the sounds.
The rover will also attempt to produce oxygen from carbon dioxide in the fine Martian atmosphere. The extracted oxygen could one day be used by astronauts on Mars to breathe as well as to make rocket propellants.
NASA wants to bring astronauts back to the moon by 2024 and send them from there to Mars in the 2030s. To that end, the space agency is sending samples of persistence suit material to see how they resist. difficult Martian environment.
The Perseverance mission tab, including theft and a minimum of two years of Mars operations, is close to $ 3 billion. The UAE project costs $ 200 million, including launching but not mission operations. China has not disclosed its costs. Europe and Russia have abandoned their plans to send a life-seeking rover to Mars this summer after falling behind in testing and then being criticized by COVID-19.
The Perseverance mission is seen by NASA as a relatively low-risk way to test some of the technology that will be needed to send humans to the Red Planet and bring them home safely.
“It’s a little crazy for me to call this low risk because there is a lot of hard work and there are billions of dollars,” said Farley. “But compared to humans, if something goes wrong, you will be very happy to have tested it on half a kilogram of rock rather than on astronauts. “