Astronomy: Probe, rover, helicopter to head to Mars this month – The Columbus Dispatch

July is a busy month for missions to Mars. Earth and Mars are now close enough in their orbits that a launch window is open. Three missions to Mars, one from NASA, one from China, and one from the United Arab Emirates, are to blast off soon.

The UAE space probe called Hope is to go first, on Monday, after bad weather scuttled last weeks launch dates. The probe is to be propelled on top of a Japanese H-IIA rocket built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The goal is to put a weather satellite in orbit around Mars to study its atmosphere in hopes of finding the reason for the atmospheres large changes over the past millennia. Long ago, Mars could sustain liquid water on its surface. Today, it has a thin, dry atmosphere. The UAE has partnered with several universities in the U.S. to design a multi-wavelength spectrometer to study the seasonal weather cycles over several years.

China has divulged little about its plan to send up a rover and an orbiter in late July or early August in a mission named Tianwen, or Questions for Heaven.

Also in late July, NASA is to launch a new rover called Perseverance using an Atlas rocket. This rover will be the size of a small car, much larger than the little rovers sent many years ago and similar in size to the Curiosity rover that landed in 2012. Whats new is that Perseverance will have a drill that can cut into a rock to remove a core sample about the size of a pen. It will take the rock samples to a drop-off spot for possible retrieval by a future mission to Mars. A campaign has been started jointly by NASA and the European Space Agency to plan a mission to bring those samples back to Earth for analysis.

Now for the really cool part. Along with Perseverance, a small helicopter called Ingenuity, which has carbon-fiber blades and weighs about 4 pounds, will be sent to Mars. It will just be a technology demonstration, but if Ingenuity succeeds in flying, it will be the first drone to fly on another planet. The Martian air is thin. so the blades need to be long about 4 feet and will spin about eight times faster than those on a helicopter on Earth.

One problem is that, due to the time lag of several minutes in communications from Earth to Mars, Ingenuity must fly itself, using an onboard computer. When flying, it wont be controlled by a human but will rely on instructions programmed into its computer. Ingenuity has a wireless connection to Perseverance, which in turn communicates with an orbiting satellite that gets radio commands from Earth. Ingenuity also has a camera, enabling it to take overhead pictures that can be relayed back to us.

The goal of these missions is to find out whether microbial life once flourished on Mars. Clear evidence of past life on Mars has eluded us.

Ken Hicks is a professor of physics and astronomy at Ohio University in Athens.

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Astronomy: Probe, rover, helicopter to head to Mars this month - The Columbus Dispatch

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