Three Spacecraft Head for Mars
Three Spacecraft Head for Mars
  • Reporter Park Eu-gene
  • 승인 2020.09.03 14:50
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▲Illustration of NASA’s Perseverance rover operating on Mars / NASA
▲Illustration of NASA’s Perseverance rover operating on Mars / NASA


Since ancient times, when it was named Ares by the ancient Greeks, Mars has been a great mystery. For a long time, humankind could only gaze at Mars, but the advance in technology allowed them to send spacecraft to the red planet. However, these spacecraft can only be launched during a specific time: the “launch window”.
The “launch window” is a crucial time for rocket launch that comes every 2.2 years when travel between the two planets is most cost-effective: the spacecraft can maneuver in the “Hohmann transfer orbit” which consumes the lowest possible amount of propellant. As the launch window is opened longest this year between July 17 and Aug. 15—far shorter windows open each day beyond Aug. 15—three spacecraft left for Mars last month. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) launched Hope Orbiter (Al Amal in Arabic) on July 20, China launched Tianwen-1 on July 23, and the U.S. launched Perseverance on July 30.
Mars is notorious for its mission failure rate: on average, half of the missions failed. This is because a spacecraft has to drastically decelerate before landing due to Mars’s thin atmosphere. Even after landing, Mars’s massive dust storms are a constant threat to rovers. This is why NASA’s rover is the only one roaming on Mars despite other countless attempts.
The three spacecraft have various instruments to overcome these difficulties and fulfill their missions. The UAE’s Hope orbiter, designed to observe Mars from space, is equipped with a star tracker, six thrusters, and a reaction control system to delicately position and maneuver in orbit. The Tianwen-1 lander is equipped with a parachute and a retrorocket to slow down its descent. NASA’s Perseverance has six robust, individually motorized aluminum wheels and a suspension system to drive over obstacles. It is powered by plutonium dioxide that enables the rover to operate even at night and during dust storms.

▲The UAE's Hope probe takes off on its journey to Mars / AFP
▲The UAE's Hope probe takes off on its journey to Mars / AFP


With these instruments, the three missions have their own scientific goals. UAE’s Hope orbiter will gather data that could help explain how Mars lost its atmosphere. The data it collects will complement data from other Mars missions. Tianwen-1’s orbiter will study the whole planet extensively, as its lander will study the planet’s geology with its ground-penetrating radar and search for potential underground reservoirs of ice. The Perseverance rover will seek for signs of ancient life and collect rock and soil samples to return to Earth.
Scientific goals aside, the three missions also have symbolic significance. The UAE’s Hope orbiter represents the end of a troubled period of extremism and conflict and the dawn of a brighter future to the Emiratis. Its name, Hope, “means that we turn away from the conflicts and focus on human and economic development,” says Nidhal Guessoum, an astrophysicist and professor at the American University of Sharjah in the UAE. As the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission, the Hope orbiter is also a step forward for the science and engineering industries in the region.
China, too, knows that space missions will become increasingly important in the future. Bao Weimin, a senior director at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, called the exploration of Mars “a manifestation of the country’s scientific and technological strength”. If successful, the mission would be an impressive feat. “China realizes that in the world of today and … tomorrow, space is going to play a critical role in how humanity organizes itself,” said Dr. Namrata Goswami, an independent analyst. Just last month, China launched the last of the satellites needed in the global GPS, an alternative to U.S.-made satellites.
Meanwhile, the US spacecraft Perseverance will help future astronauts leaving for Mars by making breathable oxygen from carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere. It also carries samples of spacesuit material to see if they can survive the harsh Martian environment. The spacecraft also symbolically carries nearly 11 million people’s names on three fingernail-sized silicon chips to the Red Planet.
These three missions to Mars are of historic importance. If the search for extraterrestrial life succeeds, the discovery will open up a whole new field of astrobiology and radically alter humanity’s view on life as being unique in the universe. The missions also look far into the future by preparing for the colonization of Mars.

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