Every 18 to 24 months, Earth and Mars align in such a way as to make deep-space travel that little bit easier, or at least a bit faster. That reduces a trip or "trajectory" to the Red Planet from about nine months down to seven.
That means that July is shaping up to be a very busy time for missions to Mars.
There are three all launching within days of each other the Emirates Mars Mission, with its atmospheric probe, Hope or "Al-Amal," NASA's Mars 2020, carrying a lander called Perseverance, and China's "Tianwen-1", a collection of orbiters and landers. In fact, there would have been a fourth mission in Europe's ExoMars 2020.
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"If they don't go know, they will have a very long wait," says Malcolm Macdonald, a professor of space technology at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. "That's why the Americans, for instance, through the current pandemic, prioritized Demo-2, the SpaceX crewed mission to the International Space Station, and their Mars mission."
How the coronavirus pandemic has affected the Chinese mission is hard to know. And Europe's ExoMars 2020 was already heading for delays.
As for the Emirates Mars Mission (EMM), failing to leave now would set a 100-year plan for national and interplanetary transformation back by two years. So, after a round of ultra-fast thinking, which predicted the lockdown and those closed international borders, the team dispatched its spacecraft, Hope, and a team of Emirati engineers for the launch in Japan before it was too late.
A sense of urgency
There is a sense of urgency in the UAE that harks back to when the nation was established in 1971, starting from a point where infrastructure like transport and education were underdeveloped.
It was "evident then that you needed to do things rapidly to get on a par with the world," says Sarah Al-Amiri, the EMM's Science Lead, in an interview with DW.
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And you can see that in the way the EMM has grown. The UAE has been developing Earth Observation spacecraft since 2006, which is a short time in itself. But the Mars mission has gone from a feasibility study in 2013 to its announcement a year later, and now a launch in 2020. Six short years.
Emirates Mars Mission - Al-Amal Probe in construction and testing
"We don't have a hundred years to sit around and grow organically. It's always been that way, developing in leaps and bounds," says Al-Amiri.
That culture of rapid growth has been hastened by a dwindling demand for oil.
"There is a drive to diversify," she says. "And the way to do that is use today's oil, which is knowledge and expertise that's routed in science and technology."
For Al-Amiri and mission manager, Omran Sharaf, seeing UAE's space sector blossom is a long-held passion. They were perhaps among the more fortunate, being able to study abroad. But they are back and among the country's pioneers.
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Al-Amir says she "never dared to dream of space, just for a lack of existing opportunities" at home, but she had started programming by the 5th Grade at school, studied computer engineering, and is now UAE's Minister of State for Advanced Sciences.
Meanwhile, Sharaf says he was always curious about satellites "I wished I could work on a space program." He studied electrical engineering in the US, came back to the UAE and joined a team of young Emiratis charged with setting up that space program. They started gathering experience in South Korea, working on Earth observation satellites, DubaiSat-1 and 2.
Why not the moon?
It's not only about getting to space. The mission is designed to establish the UAE's space capabilities to encourage homegrown innovation and inspire new generations of scientists, with job prospects and a sustainable future.
As such, it's reasonable to ask, "Why not go to the moon?" It is closer after all.
The answer lies in the science.
"We're not underestimating the moon it's difficult, too. Getting there is not easy," says Sharaf, in the same interview. "But Mars is the next level. When it comes to the scientific questions and the purpose of exploring Mars, we can build a better rationale behind it. It's a planet that scientists believe was once alive and became a dead planet. Understanding what happened there and why it lost its atmosphere will help us understand our own planet."
Mars is an active area of research that relies on data collected "at the planet," says Al-Amiri, rather than via telescopes and other forms of observation. So, she says, the EMM will deliver data that is actually needed by the global science community.
The team has collaborated with universities in the US and UK, and they have consulted the NASA-affiliated Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG).
Some roam, some drill The InSight lander collects seismic data by drilling into Martian ground
MEPAG is a gathering of experts that publishes scientific "vision papers," detailing scientific goals and questions that need to be answered about the planet.
Key scientific objectives for Hope
The Hope Probe aims to be the first to provide a complete picture of the Martian atmosphere. It will try to explain why or how Mars loses hydrogen and oxygen gases into space over the span of a Martian year.
Significantly, Hope will explore Mars' "diurnal," or day-to-night cycle, which has never been done before.
Using three instruments an ultraviolet spectrometer, a digital camera and an infrared spectrometer, they will overlay images to create a picture from the lower to upper atmosphere. But Hope's orbit will be central to getting the data they want.
The EMIRS InfraRed Spectrometer one of three instruments onboard the Emirates Hope Probe that will orbit Mars
As Franois Forget, an astrophysicist at the Laboratoire de Mtorologie Dynamique in Paris, France, puts it: "The instruments are not revolutionary, but the orbit is completely new."
A new Martian orbit
"Mars rotates, like Earth, but in 24 hours and 38 minutes, and the spacecraft will have an elliptical orbit of about 20,000 kilometers at its lowest to 43,000 kilometers at the top," says Forget, who is also involved in the Emirates Mars Mission.
"When it's at 20,000 km, it will stay above the same [location on Mars], rotating with the planet for 8 hours and that will let us monitor what's going on throughout the day so, for instance, we'll see morning fog disappearing here, a storm start there," says Forget, " and then it will move up again, and when it's higher, the spacecraft moves slower, while the planet keeps rotating below it. When it returns to the lowest altitude, it will rotate with the planet again. So, we'll see what's happening over time."
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With each swing of the orbit, Hope will track different locations from its lower and higher orbits. In the end, all the data will be stitched together to make a complete picture of those locations over a full 24-hour period, day and night. But it may take three orbits of a particular location to accumulate a full diurnal cycle, says Forget.
Weather patterns and dust storms
The data will be open to the scientific community, allowing it to be combined with other data, like seismic information collected by the InSight lander or other atmospheric data from the MAVEN probe.
Collaborators in space the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) probe is focused on the Martian upper atmosphere
There are so many questions to answer and no single mission can answer them all.
But, ultimately, scientists want to know how Mars became uninhabitable for humans, why its atmosphere wouldn't protect us like the atmosphere on Earth.
Mars' atmosphere is thin like Earth's, but it mostly consists of carbon dioxide (CO2), and there's only a small amount of oxygen and water vapor. So, finding out more about why that little oxygen which humans need to live and breathe escapes Mars is crucial to our understanding of the planet.
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"MEPAG has set questions for the community, things we need to learn to understand Mars' evolution, and one of those things is historical atmospheric change," says Al-Amiri. "That's understanding the weather system, the day-to-night cycle, and the dynamics there what are the seasonal changes?"
Or why Mars gets global dust storms. "We get localized, regional dust storms. But Mars gets global dust storms. So, what factors allow a planet to be engulfed by a single dust storm," asks Al-Amiri.
What role does Mars play in its own atmospheric loss?
Then there's the specific question of why the planet is losing its atmosphere.
Scientists have looked at whether that's due to space itself for instance, that the atmosphere is being "stripped" by solar winds streams of charged particles that shoot out from the sun at speeds of up to 900 km per second.
The Emirates Mars Mission probe, Hope, spreads its solar panel wings
But some other theories suggest Mars may play its own role.
"There are dust storms, cloud formations, water vapor cycles, and we're asking how much impact that has on the loss of hydrogen and oxygen from Mars into its exosphere," says Al-Amiri.
The mission will do that by taking simultaneous measurements infrared technology in the lower atmosphere, where Hope will study temperatures and ice clouds, and ultraviolet technology for the Martian ozone in the lower atmosphere and hydrogen and oxygen loss in the upper atmosphere.
Finally, there's a simple camera that will enable Hope to take full "disc images" of the planet, which may reveal "interesting phenomena," says Forget.
"For example, a couple of years ago, we found these elongate clouds forming near the top of Olympus Mons [the largest volcano on Mars]. They went for 2,000 kilometers, and this had never been seen, because we were always looking at Mars in strips from the same local time," says Forget. "So, a full disc image can be spectacular, fun and scientific."
Mission to collaborate
Much has been made of the mission's launching from Japan. But the Japanese space agency, JAXA, points out that the mission is "UAE's independent program."
Japan has an overall good track-record for space launches a H-IIA rocket, similar to the one for the EMM, launched from Tanegashima Space Center
Even the launch on a Japanese H-IIArocketfrom JAXA's Tanegashima Space Center will be operated not by the agency but by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
But the Japanese connection is interesting to note because Japan has its own interests in Mars.
In an email to DW, JAXA's Nobuyoshi Fujimoto writes that Japan's MMX mission in 2024 will "survey Mars's two moons and collect a sample from one of them and bring it back."
There is also a good chance that data from the Emirates Mars Mission will flow into Japan's MMX moons mission.
"The Japanese have got fantastic capabilities, but they've never been to Mars," says Macdonald, "so, working as partners in the international community will give them more confidence for the next time they decide to go."
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The EMM is all about international collaboration, which, Sharaf says, has been good with American teams at the University of Colorado Boulder, Arizona State University, and University of California, Berkeley.
"Getting some of the knowledge for our mission was not easy and we had to think about how it could be done in a way that serves everyone our national interests, that of our partners, and humanity," says Sharaf. "So, this is a case study from which other nations can learn. For instance, how we collaborated in 2006 with Korea a very different mindset and system and in 2014 with the US."
Hope's high-gain antenna dish for communicating with MBRSC Mission Control on Earth
That collaborative spirit will possibly also seep into other areas of research as the UAE moves towards a "post-oil" economy.
"Our space program is a tool for other goals," says Sharaf. "It's linked to national challenges like food and water, and clean energy is an issue, but also economic opportunities. Those are the pillars that dictate our program. It's not just about getting to space. So, if asteroid mining or rocket fuel addressed one of those pillars, we would look into it."
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All that's left
The only question that's left for now is whether the UAE and its first Mars mission will succeed.
"Going to Mars is difficult, not a lot of people have successfully gone to Mars," says Macdonald. "The Americans, Europe, Russia and India have orbited it. But Russia's had a lot of failures trying to land on Mars, and the Japanese have failed before."
So, what are the UAE's chances?
"Well, the launch vehicle tends to be a fairly big stumbling block, but the Japanese have a good heritage there, so you'd expect the launch to work and for the spacecraft to get to Mars," Macdonald says. "And as long as it wakes up and gets onto its correct trajectory But you can't expect success, because space is difficult."
The new NASA Mars rover has arrived. It will support the currently operating Curiosity rover in its work on the red planet. The new rover weighs just over 1 tonne (2,000 lbs) and is therefore 100 kg heavier than its predecessor. And, at 3 meters in size, it is also 10 centimeters longer. It can load more research equipment and sensors, and its gripper arm with cameras and tools is also stronger.
This is what the rover looks like when it travels. On board a C-17 Globemaster, it traveled from California to Florida in the US. From there, it will set off to Mars on July 17. The new rover is able to collect samples from Mars. It is equipped with 23 cameras and many other instruments. Among other things, it aims to find out whether oxygen can be extracted from the Martian rocks.
Curiosity is the largest and most modern of all Mars rovers currently deployed. It landed on August 6, 2012 and has since traveled more than 21 kilometers. It is much more than just a rover. Its official name is "Mars Science Laboratory," and it really is a complete lab on wheels.
For example, it contains special spectrometer, which can analyze chemical compounds from a distance with the help of a laser; a complete meteorological station that can measure temperature, atmospheric pressure, radiation, humidity and wind speed; and most importantly, a chemistry lab that can run detailed analyses of organic compounds and is always on the hunt for traces of alien life.
Curiosity has shown that life would theoretically be possible on Mars. But it hasn't discovered any life, yet. The robot's arm is equipped with a full power drill. Here, it's taking a sample in "Yellowknife Bay" inside the Gale Crater.
The Mars dust is processed by a large number of instruments. First, it's filtered and separated into different-sized particles. Then, those get sorted and sent off to different analytical laboratory machines.
Curiosity's predecessors were much smaller. On July 4, 1997, the small Mars rover Sojourner left its first tire tracks behind in the dust of the red planet. It was the first time a mobile robot had been left to its own devices there, equipped with an X-ray spectrometer to conduct chemical analyses and with optical cameras.
Three rover generations. (The tiny one up front is Sojourner.) At 10.6 kilograms (23 pounds), it's not much bigger than a toy car. Its top speed: 1 centimeter per second. Opportunity weighs 185 kilograms roughly the equivalent of an electric wheelchair. Curiosity is as big as a small car, at 900 kilograms. The big ones travel up to 4 or 5 centimeters per second.
Sojourner travelled about 100 meters during its lifetime and delivered data and pictures until September 27, 1997. This is one of the last pictures of it, taken nine days before the radio connection broke down. Sojourner probably died because the battery did not survive the cold nights.
Without the experience of Sojourner, newer rovers could have hardly been envisaged. In 2004, NASA landed two robots of the same model on Mars: Spirit and Opportunity. Spirit survived for six years, travelling a distance of 7.7 kilometers. The robot climbed mountains, took soil samples and withstood winter and sandstorms. Its sibling, Opportunity, lost contact on February 13, 2019.
Opportunity passed the marathon distance of 42 kilometers back in 2015, and to this day, it has covered much more ground than Curiosity. It can take ground probes with its arm. It has three different spectrometers and even a 3D camera. It was last operating in "Perseverance Valley," an appropriate workplace for the sturdy robot, before being incapacitated by a sand storm.
This panorama was taken by Curiosity's mast camera. The most modern of the rovers will stay in service as long as possible hopefully at least another five years and much longer. The Martian landscape looks familiar somehow, not unlike some deserts here on Earth. Should we give in to our wanderlust, then or would it be better leave Mars to the robots?
Author: Fabian Schmidt
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