Jul 14, 2020 - Science

The summer of Mars

Illustration of Mars wearing sunglasses.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Three missions from three different nations are heading to Mars in the next month — including one from the United Arab Emirates, a newer player in planetary exploration that is expected to launch its first spacecraft to the Red Planet Thursday.

Why it matters: More nations are now going to space as the costs of launch and development are driven down. Mars is a step farther that is reserved for those with the most ability and resources — missions to the planet are a mark of scientific and technical prowess on the global stage.

  • The other Mars missions, from the U.S. and China, are expected to launch later this month.

Details: The UAE's spacecraft is designed to keep an eye on Mars' weather patterns from orbit and fill in gaps in knowledge left by previous orbiters.

  • China's mission — which includes an orbiter, lander and a rover — would be the country's first solo one to Mars.
  • NASA's Perseverance rover is expected to hunt for signs of past life on Mars from its landing site.

Between the lines: The three efforts all aim to help piece together Mars' past and current environment and suitability for life, and reflect a global push deeper into space that is driven by both science and geopolitics.

  • The U.S. is the only nation to successfully land and operate rovers on the Martian surface, and expectations for Perseverance are high.
  • The rover is designed to cache interesting samples of rock and dirt on Mars that will eventually be returned to Earth for analysis on a future robotic mission, complex work that sets the stage for eventual crewed missions to the Red Planet.
  • China and the UAE's missions, on the other hand, will be historic feats if they get to Mars at all and reflect their increasing presence in space.

State of play: The UAE is looking at its Hope mission as a way to help boost scientific know-how in the Middle East.

  • UAE leaders want science to be "deeply integrated" into the nation's economy, Omran Sharaf, the project lead for Hope, told Axios. "They wanted to set the standards for the sectors that are involved by basically using space as a driver. Why? Because space standards are the highest."
  • The UAE also sees the mission as a way to refocus the world's attention on the Middle East's history of scientific discovery and invention as well as find a way to bring young workers into the economy.
"In 2010, we weren't even talking about exploring other planets. We were talking about what other advancements in Earth observation satellites we want to have."
— Sarah Al Amiri, deputy project manager for Hope

The intrigue: All three of these missions had to contend with issues around the coronavirus pandemic in order to get to the launch pad this summer.

  • NASA prioritized work on Perseverance during the pandemic because the window to launch to Mars only comes around every two years.
  • Europe and Russia's ExoMars rover, on the other hand, wasn't able to get to the launch pad in part due to limits on travel imposed by the coronavirus.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a launch delay for the Hope mission. The launch has been rescheduled from Tuesday to Thursday due to poor weather.

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