Look out, Mars: We come with a fleet of spacecraft

Three missions are on their way to find the first footprints of life on another planet

UAE's mission Hope (Amal) to Mars

By this time next year, Mars will be abuzz with robotic activity as three countries - the United States, China and the United Arab Emirates - are to send unmanned spacecraft to the red planet beginning next week. And the three nearly simultaneous launches are no coincidence: The timing is dictated by the opening of a one-month window in which Mars and Earth are in ideal alignment on the same side of the sun, which minimises travel time and fuel use.

Such a window opens only once every 26 months. This means that If they miss this chance, they won't have another opportunity to launch until 2022.

And even though NASA has already sent five rovers to the red planet in the past, including two that are still opearating (InSight and Curiosity), this will be China's and the UAE's first attempts.

The UAE craft, named Amal, which is Arabic for “Hope,”, is also set to be the first one to take off from southern Japan somewhere between 19-21 July and travel the distance of more than 483 million kilometers before reaching Mars next February.

The Hope orbiter will join six other spacecraft that orbit Mars, but it won't land on the surface. Instead, while circling the red planet, the satellite will be the one to study the Martian atmosphere by monitoring how it interacts with the solar wind and tracking the loss of hydrogen and oxygen. In particular, Hope's goal will be to chart a global map of the planet's climate across an entire Martian year, which would be humanity's first such picture of Mars's atmosphere.

"We'll be able to cover all of Mars, through all times of day, through an entire Martian year," Sarah Al Amiri, science lead for the mission and the UAE's minister for advanced sciences, told Nature shortly before the launch date.

Then, if all goes accordingly, China will be up next, with the flight of a rover and an orbiter sometime around 23 July. The mission is named Tianwen-1, meaning "Quest for Heavenly Truth," according to Nature. If successful, it will be the very first Mars mission to drop a landing platform, deploy a rover, and send a spacecraft into the planet's orbit all at once. The rover will be equipped with a radar system that can detect underground pockets of water. It will also help China prepare for its own mission to return a sample from Mars to Earth in the 2030s.

NASA, meanwhile, is shooting for a launch on 30 July from Cape Canaveral, with he Perseverance rover expected to touch down on 18 February, 2021 in Mars' ancient river delta and lake known as Jezero Crater. But to achieve that, both Perseverance and Tianwen-1 will have to first plunge through Mars’ hazy red skies in what has been dubbed “seven minutes of terror” - the most difficult and riskiest part of putting spacecraft on the planet.

Jezero Crater is full of boulders, cliffs, sand dunes and depressions, any one of which could end Perseverance’s mission. Yet, Jezero Crater is worth the risks, according to scientists who chose it over 60 other potential sites. And a brand-new guidance and parachute-triggering technology will help steer NASA's craft away from hazards.

Where there was water - and Jezero was apparently flush with it 3.5 billion years ago - there may have been life, though it was probably only simple microbial life, existing perhaps in a slimy film at the bottom of the crater. But those microbes may have left telltale marks in the sediment layers. Perseverance will hunt for rocks containing such biological signatures, if they exist.

It will drill into the most promising of them and store a half-kilogram of samples in dozens of titanium tubes that will eventually be fetched by another rover. To prevent Earth microbes from contaminating the samples, the tubes are super-sterilised, guaranteed germ-free by Adam Stelzner, chief engineer for the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

While prowling the surface, Perseverance as well as China’s rover will also peek below, using radar to locate any underground pools of water that might exist. Perseverance will also release a spindly 1.8-kilogram helicopter that will be the first rotorcraft ever to fly on another planet.

Additionlly, the rover will attempt to produce oxygen from the carbon dioxide in the thin Martian atmosphere, which could someday be used by astronauts on Mars for breathing as well as for making rocket propellant.

Together, all these developments could get us closer to putting human boots on Mars's harsh surface.

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