What's New: July 2020

The Mars Flotilla

This month, no less than three missions are scheduled to be launched to Mars. The last time that happened was in 2003, when the European Space Agency launched an orbiter and NASA launched the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. This year, however, three different countries are launching Mars missions.
Why are these launches happening now?

Mars takes 687 days to orbit the Sun. As such, Earth and Mars get close to each other, roughly, every 26 months. It is then that spacecraft can be launched with a minimum amount of energy and can carry the maximum payloads. Such “launch windows” last for just a few weeks.

The first spacecraft, Hope, is tentatively scheduled to be launched on July 14. It is a spacecraft built and operated by the United Arab Emirates; as such is the Arab world’s first mission to another planet. Hope will study the Martian atmosphere from its orbit around Mars. In particular, it will measure the loss of hydrogen and oxygen from the planet’s atmosphere. We know that, in the distant past, Mars was a warmer and wetter world; over time, it has lost much of its atmosphere. Hope’s mission is to study the details of this process.

The NASA mission, Perseverance, is scheduled for a July 20 launch. It is a large rover, similar to Curiosity (which is still operating on the Martian surface). While previous rovers have established the past presence of liquid water and habitable environments on Mars, Perseverance will actually look for organic compounds and traces of past life on the planet. It will also gather and store samples, which a future sample return mission could retrieve and bring back for analysis in sophisticated laboratories on Earth. After landing, Perseverance will deploy Ingenuity – a small helicopter that will be the first to demonstrate an ability to fly for short distances in another planet’s atmosphere. An artist’s concept of the two spacecraft is below.