China, US, UAE sending Mars missions: Why so many spacecrafts are heading towards the Red planet

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Updated: Jul 22, 2020 5:50 PM

Sunday saw the launch of UAE’s Amal (Hope) probe, while China is likely to send off its Tianwen-1 probe around Thursday.

Mars has for years been an object of fascination for space enthusiasts.Mars has for years been an object of fascination for space enthusiasts. (Image: NASA)

Mars missions: July 2020 is an exciting time to be a space enthusiast, and it is even more so for Mars lovers. At the beginning of July, as many as three Mars missions were lined up for launch – from the US, the United Arab Emirates and China. Sunday saw the launch of UAE’s Amal (Hope) probe, while China is likely to send off its Tianwen-1 probe around Thursday. US’ much talked about Perseverance mission will take off on July 30, marking the last Mars probe till 2022 as of now.

Mars: What we know about the missions so far

UAE’s Amal Mars probe

The United Arab Emirates on Sunday joined the elite group of countries which have been carrying out Mars exploration since as early as 1960. With the launch of its Amal (Hope) probe on Sunday, the country also became the first Arab and Islamic country to send a mission to Mars. Amal is an orbiter, which is scheduled to arrive at the orbit of the Red Planet by 2021, marking the 50th anniversary of the UAE’s union, the official website UAE space department said.

The Hope probe, the UAE hopes, would be the first one to provide the entire picture of the atmosphere as well as the layers of the Red Planet. According to the UAE, it would also help in answering important questions about the “global” atmosphere of Mars, and the hydrogen and oxygen gases lost by the planet into space over the span of a year.

The launch, the UAE’s space mission website said, is a part of its Mars 2117 programme, which aims to provide the country with knowledge and expertise to build the first settlement, the Mars Science City, on the Red Planet by the year 2117. It also wishes to explore Mars to address the problems of food, energy and water security on our own planet. Apart from that, the Mars mission has also been launched to mark the UAE’s entry into the space race. This marks the first interplanetary mission undertaken by the country, and its overall fourth one.

China’s Tianwen-1 mission

China is set to launch its Tianwen-1 on its Long March 5 Yaosi carrier rocket between late July to early August, depending on the contingent factors and the earliest opportunity. This would be China’s first planetary Mars exploration mission and it had been approved in January 2016. The China National Space Administration (CNSA) had announced last week that on July 17, it had transferred the carrier rocket to its launch site and now it would look for the perfect opportunity to implement the launch.

While China has not disclosed much about its mission, according to the CNSA website, the aim of the mission is to carry out the circumnavigation, landing and patrol detection of the Red Planet in a single launch. With this, China also hopes to gather scientific data for the planet’s exploration, like the study of the composition of its soil, topography, geology, climate and environment.

The US’s Perseverance mission

The US’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is scheduled to launch its Perseverance rover on July 30. According to NASA’s timeline, on February 18 next year, the rover is expected to land at the site where an ancient river delta existed in a lake that used to fill the Jezero Crater. NASA hopes that Perseverance rover would spend at least one Martian year (or two Earth years) exploring the region around the landing site, which is a geologically diverse area.

The mission is to help the agency better understand the geology of the Red Planet while also looking for signs of any ancient life. The 2020 Mars mission of NASA would also collect rock and soil samples which could return to Earth in future. The mission would also demonstrate the technology for future human and robotic exploration of the planet.

But why are Mars missions so important?

Mars has for years been an object of fascination for space enthusiasts, given its proximity to our own planet and yet, its very distinct red colour. The fascination increased when probes found the presence of water on the Red Planet, indicating the possibility of life on it. According to NASA, the agency’s Mars Exploration Programmes over the past 20 years have found that the now cold and dry planet was very different billions of years ago, and the presence of water indicates the wet conditions that once prevailed on Mars. NASA further states that these conditions prevailed for long enough that microbial life could have potentially been present on it back then.

While NASA has sent as many as eight spacecrafts on the surface of the planet, other countries have tried and failed to achieve the feat. While several Mars orbiters are going around the Red Planet, including India’s Mangalyaan-1, successfully landing a spacecraft on Mars have now also become a matter of prestige for countries. While Moon has already seen successful landing attempts from three countries, Mars has only been explored by the US so far. While the UAE is not using this opportunity to land a spacecraft on the Martian surface, China would be deploying an orbiter, lander as well as a rover on its Mars mission. China had earlier in 2011 tried to deploy a Mars orbiter on a Russian rocket, but the mission had failed.

This time, however, China has decided to carry out the launch on its own rocket. If China succeeds in its ambitious plan to land on Mars in its first planetary mission, it would be the first country to give the US a direct competition in its surface exploration mission.

Both China and the UAE, though, are relying to a large extent on the successful missions that NASA has already undertaken in the past. While the US is furthering its decades-long exploration mission to find evidence of life that once existed on Mars, the other two countries are using NASA’s already collected information to undertake their missions of exploring the elements that make up Mars – by China – and gaining knowledge and expertise to establish the first human settlement on the planet – by the UAE.

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