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The UAE's Hope, China's Tainwen-1 and NASA's Perseverance arrive at Mars

The UAE's Hope, China's Tainwen-1 and NASA's Perseverance arrive at Mars

Mars has always been a source of wonder for many space enthusiasts. While practical entrepreneurs plan to mine the Moon and the asteroids, others dream of exploring the Red Planet and, eventually, making it a second home. 

Robert Zubrin envisions Mars as the next frontier, serving the Earth as a place to go and make a new start much as the Americas did 200 or so years ago. SpaceX’s Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskThe cold truth on energy The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Senate ref axes minimum wage, House votes today on relief bill Tesla temporarily halting some production in California: report MORE is even now building the rocket ships that he hopes will take pioneers to populate the first city on the Red Planet.

So far Mars has only been visited by machines, humanity’s surrogates that fly by it, orbit it and land and roll across its landscape. Last July a fleet of three such spacecraft, one from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), one from China and one from NASA, departed Earth for Mars. Now, in February 2021, all three spacecraft have arrived at the Red Planet. Mars is being invaded by Earth.

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The BBC reported that the UAE Hope was first to enter Mars orbit on Feb. 9. The space probe will spend the next few months studying Mars’ atmosphere and weather. More importantly, Hope represents a triumph of the Arab Gulf nation’s quest to create a high-tech economy. The mission has garnered a great deal of enthusiasm in the UAE, with buildings and monuments being lit red in celebration.

The following day, on Feb. 10, the Chinese Tianwen-1 arrived in Mars orbit. Tiawen-1 consists of an orbiter, a lander and a rover. The orbiter will conduct reconnaissance of the Martian surface for the next few months. Then, likely in May, the lander and rover will detach and attempt a landing, likely within the Utopia Panitia impact basin in Mars’ Northern hemisphere. The Tianwen-1 mission is the latest in China’s quest to establish itself as a major spacefaring super-power.

NASA’s Perseverance rover arrived on Mars in a typically flamboyant American manner. Instead of calmly entering orbit before attempting a landing, Perseverance headed directly into the Martian atmosphere using a combination of atmospheric drag, retro rockets, a parachute and finally a curious device called a sky crane to touch down in the Jezero Crater. Billions of years ago, a confluence of streams formed a lake in the middle of the crater. Where there was once water there may once have been life the remnants, which Perseverance will hunt for.

Perseverance also contains a drone helicopter dubbed Ingenuity. Ingenuity will constitute the first attempt to fly in the atmosphere of another planet. If the drone helicopter succeeds, it will lead the way for other aircraft on Mars and other worlds with atmospheres.

Besides looking for signs of ancient Martian life, Perseverance will collect a number of soil and rock samples and store them for a future sample return mission. It will also conduct an experiment to produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, a crucial technology for Martian explorers and settlers.

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A recent study suggests that the best way to take astronauts to Mars and return them safely to the Earth would be to develop either a nuclear thermal engine or a nuclear electric engine to propel the spacecraft much faster than a conventional chemical rocket and with less fuel. NASA already has a nuclear thermal rocket engine, which uses a nuclear reactor to heat hydrogen fuel, in development. If NASA speeds development of a nuclear thermal engine it can launch the first humans to Mars in 2039. A nuclear electric engine, which uses ionized xenon to create thrust, would take a little longer.

In the meantime, Musk is sticking to chemical rocket engines to mount his private Mars program. SpaceX would launch the super heavy Starship into low Earth orbit. Then other Starships, configured as tankers, would top off its fuel tanks. Then the Starship would blast out of orbit with passengers and/or cargo and head for Mars.

The dream of sending humans to Mars has existed for decades, at least since Wernher von Braun wrote The Mars Project in 1952. NASA planning has included sending astronauts to Mars since the Space Task Group report in 1969. Thus far, Mars has remained out of reach because of politics and the vast technical problems of reaching it. Whether or not humans will walk on Mars in the 2030s remains to be seen.

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.