Starting in July the window opens when missions to Mars can be easily sent across the interplanetary gulf. If all goes well, three such missions, mounted by NASA, China and the United Arab Emirates, will depart Earth for the Red Planet. The number of missions, who is launching them and their complexity illustrate the importance Mars has for purveyors of space exploration policy.
NASA Perseverance is currently scheduled to launch somewhere between July 30 and August 15. It will land in the Jezero Crater on Mars on February 18, 2021. Perseverance will roll about the Martian landscape looking for signs of life — past and present — and collecting rock and soil samples for later pickup and delivery to Earth. The rover will also carry a helicopter drone that is envisioned as the first aircraft to fly in the skies of another world.
China’s Tianwen-1 is the most complex, consisting of an orbiter, a lander and a rover. The name translates roughly to “the quest for heavenly truth.” The rover is much smaller than Perseverance and contains six scientific instruments. While the rover spends 90 Martian days rolling about studying Mars at close range, the orbiter will examine it from a wider perspective for about a Martian year, serving as a communication relay.
The United Arab Emirates mission is a small orbiter called Hope. Hope is scheduled to launch on a Japanese rocket and will spend 200 days cruising to Mars. The probe will enter an elliptical orbit around the Red Planet. Hope will spend at least two years studying aspects of the Martian atmosphere.
Why are so many missions being sent to Mars in a single month? The answer is different for each player.
NASA’s primary mandate since its beginning has been to explore space. The space agency has been sending robot probes to Mars since the Mariner 4 in the mid-1960s. NASA also has a renewed mandate to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit to Mars as well as other destinations. Each robotic probe that flies by, orbits or lands on Mars is a prelude to the day when Americans step out of the Mars lander and tread the face of a second alien world. The human expedition to Mars, which will stop by the moon to top off rocket fuel created by lunar water, will be a singular, historic event of this century, dwarfing the Apollo moon landing.
China is mounting an expedition to Mars to enhance its status as a major space power. Beijing envisions its space program, which includes a planned crewed space station and several robotic expeditions to the moon leading to a crewed landing, as a means to define itself as a superpower, first as a peer of the United States, but in the long term to supplant America.
The UAE, conscious that oil and gas are beginning to lose their appeal, has embarked on creating a high-tech economy. The Hope mission, the first of its kind by any Arab nation, is part of that strategy.
Every iota of data gleaned by these missions, as well as everyone past and future, will support the grandest Mars vision of all. SpaceX’s Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskElon Musk, Grimes split after three years together UN secretary-general blasts space tourism Elon Musk promises upgraded toilets, Wi-Fi on next SpaceX flight MORE has made no secret of his desire to found a city on the Red Planet, thus establishing, as the space visionary Robert Zubrin has advocated, a second branch of human civilization. The idea is to spark the pioneering spirit on Earth by opening a human frontier on the fourth planet from the sun, enabling innovation and optimism that has been sorely lacking in recent years. Coincidentally, Mars would become an insurance policy for the human race, ensuring that it does not become extinct due to some calamity, such as the object that crashed into the Earth, killing the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
The ultimate dream is to use terraforming techniques to transform Mars into a habitable world, one of oceans and forests and an atmosphere that humans can breathe. Terraforming the Red Planet into a blue world would be the work of centuries. The process would restore Mars to what it once was billions of years ago, before a slow-motion calamity created the arid, chilly planet that we know today.
Musk’s dream, should it be fulfilled, would be as consequential as the emergence of life from the ocean to the land. It would constitute the evolution of humanity into a multi-planet species.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.