An exciting week for Space Exploration!

This morning, the first of three spacecraft that have been headed from Earth to Mars in a cosmic convoy for the last seven months, successfully entered into orbit around the red planet. This flight, one which will become quite common over the next several decades as we see rockets firing off all over the globe every twenty-six months in preparation for a manned mission later this decade, was the first for the United Arab Emirates. Their orbiter, Al Amal, which means, “Hope” in English, successfully fired its six thrusters for a full 27-minutes in order to slow enough to enter orbit around Mars. Eleven minutes after the rockets shut down—the time it takes for a signal to reach Earth from Mars’ current position—NASA’s Deep Space Satellite Network received confirmation that the insertion burn was successful, no doubt to the great relief of the flight crew at Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai. Historically, these types of missions succeed only about 50% of the time, a number that will necessarily have to be improved on for manned spaceflight to Mars to commence. The UAE becomes only the second nation in history to successfully achieve orbit around Mars on its first attempt, after India achieved that in 2014.

Al Amal orbiter

In their treks around the Sun, Mars and Earth reach their closest points—known as near opposition—every time Earth laps Mars, which happens every 780 days, a timeframe known as the synodic period of Mars. Although rockets could technologically launch for Mars any time, it wouldn’t be very economically efficient to try to send a spacecraft to meet Mars when it’s on the other side of the Sun, which is why we ended up with three spacecraft all enroute to Mars at the same time. It takes about seven months to get there using minimal fuel, so nations tend to launch their rockets about three-and-a-half months before closest approach, and the spacecraft arrive about three-and-a-half months after closest approach.

While Al Amal is an orbiter only, whose mission is mostly that of a weather satellite, the next spacecraft to reach Mars will be both an orbiter and a lander/rover. Tianwen-1, China’s first independent interplanetary mission, is expected to arrive at Mars sometime tomorrow. It will enter into a polar orbit where it will use subsurface exploration radar to measure surface soil conditions and look for water ice under the ground. Three months from now, in May, the lander will detach from the orbiter and attempt to descend to the surface where it will dispatch a rover to explore a crater known as Utopia Planitia, an area that some scientists think may hold sub-surface ice deposits containing as much water as Lake Superior!

A selfie taken by Tianwen-1 on its long journey through space

Finally, on February 18th, NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover, launched from Cape Canaveral on July 30th, will arrive. This is a truly exciting mission with a number of firsts that, if successful, will prove our ability to send astronauts to Mars. The spacecraft will first enter Mars’ thin atmosphere using heat shields to protect it as it streaks through the sky. A parachute will then deploy to slow it further. The air pressure on Mars is less than 1% of Earth’s, so it’s impossible to slow a landing craft enough to prevent damage using just parachutes. NASA’s solution is to drop a sky crane carrying Perseverance from the belly of the sub-orbiter, and then fire rockets to slow the sky crane down to a hover where it will lower Perseverance to the surface on cables. Because any signal would take more than 22 minutes to complete the round-trip journey from Mars to Earth, there is no way for NASA engineers to take control of the mission should something go wrong, so the entire landing sequence is automated. Perseverance is the size of a small car, and its mission is to scour Jezero crater for signs of ancient Mars life while it collects and caches scores of samples for hopefully a return trip to Earth after the first manned mission sometime later this decade. Perseverance is also carrying a small drone which it will attempt to launch in the thin air to give us all some nice overhead shots of our newest rover exploring the only planet known to be inhabited solely by robots.

It’s an exciting week for spaceflight for sure, and I’ll be following it closely! You can read more about the Perseverance rover and its mission at this link:

Check out this video animation of the full Perseverance landing sequence. It’s pretty cool!

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