Sunday, January 17, 2021

A New Space Race Heats Up As Three Mars Probes From NASA, China, and UAE Arrive

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope photographed Mars on July 18, near its closest approach to Earth since 2003. NASA

Mars is about to see a slew of Earth visitors in February. There are three probes approaching the Red Planet’s atmosphere, while two rovers are scheduled to arrive on its surface in the following months.

On February 9, the United Arab Emirates’ Hope probe is expected to arrive at the Red Planet’s orbit. The following day, China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter-rover combo is due to reach Mars as well. On February 18, NASA’s Perseverance rover will make a landing attempt in an area on Mars where scientists believe microbial life once existed.

All three Mars probes were launched in July 2020 and have traveled tens of millions of miles in space. The UAE’s Hope probe, the first Mars mission led by the Middle-Eastern kingdom, was sent into space on July 19 atop a Japanese rocket (H-IIA) from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center. The probe will study the Red Planet from its orbit for at least one Mars year, roughly equivalent to two Earth years.

China’s Tianwen-1 probe, for comparison, has a more complex structure and ambitious goals. The spacecraft consists of an orbiter, a lander and a rover, all made by the state-owned China Academy of Space Technology (CAST). Li Zhencai, CAST’s deputy commander of the Tianwen-1 project, told Chinese media this week that the probe is in the final stage of preparing for entering Mars orbit.

A model of China’s first Mars probe “Tianwen-1” was displayed to the public for the first time at the China International Industry Expo 2020. Shanghai, China, September 15, 2020. Costfoto/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

A fourth trajectory correction maneuver will be carried out by January 24 to ensure the spacecraft is on the right course, Li said. After entering orbit, the Tianwen-1 orbiter will study a potential landing site in a huge impact basin called Utopia Planitia near NASA’s Viking 2 landing site for a surface landing sometime in May.

As of January 3, the Tianwen-1 probe was 81 million miles (130 million kilometers) from Earth and 5.15 million miles (8.3 million km) from Mars, according to the China National Space Administration (CNSA).

NASA’s Perseverance rover, nicknamed Percy, will land much faster than Tianwen-1, thanks to ample experience from previous Mars missions.

Percy is the 11th Mars probe sent by NASA. The six-wheel rover is aiming for Jezero crater, a spot that scientists believe was once a lake. The rover is accompanied by a small camera-equipped helicopter, called Ingenuity, which will help explore the landing site and identify interesting areas for the rover to visit.

This Mars map shows Jezero Crater, where NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is scheduled to land in February. Also included are the locations where all of NASA’s other successful Mars missions touched down. NASA

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