Feb 28, 2023 - Science

Setting up the next scientific era on Mars

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A fleet of international spacecraft at Mars is laying the scientific groundwork for a new era of exploration at the Red Planet.

Why it matters: Understanding Mars is a major priority for NASA and other space agencies around the world, in part because it's one of the best places to search for signs of past life in the solar system.

The big picture: The spacecraft at Mars today have been beaming back data and setting the stage for future exploration of the planet.

  • That future will be defined by more science, more nations aiming for the world, returning samples from it and eventually human missions.

What's happening: NASA's Curiosity rover uncovered evidence of past waves lapping up on a shore high up on Mount Sharp. Project scientists think the wave patterns could indicate that Mars was actually relatively warm and wet for longer than initially estimated.

  • Perseverance — another NASA rover — finished setting up a cache of samples expected to be a backup sample return depot for a future mission designed to bring material from Mars back to Earth.
  • The United Arab Emirates' Hope probe, which has been orbiting Mars since 2021, has adjusted its orbit to better study the planet's moon Deimos.
  • In January, NASA announced it was creating a Mars Sample Receiving Project office that would receive and release samples from the Red Planet to labs on Earth when they arrive on our planet. (NASA also has a laboratory dedicated to lunar material.)

Flashback: Perseverance, Hope and China's Tianwen-1 orbiter and Zhurong rover all arrived at Mars within a few weeks of each other in 2021.

  • Both Hope and China's Mars mission were the first interplanetary spacecraft for their home countries and, with different designs and areas of focus, are adding to the diversity of probes exploring the Red Planet today.

Between the lines: The spacecraft exploring Mars are more than faceless robotic stand-ins for humanity. Over the years, the missions have also developed their own distinct identities.

  • Curiosity — something of an elder statesman on Mars at this point — has been deeply studying a relatively small area of Mars since it landed in 2012.
  • The spacecraft is taking its time climbing up Mount Sharp in Gale Crater, stopping along the way to drill rocks and learn more about their compositions to gather as much data as possible.
  • Scientists and engineers operating the mission are more conservative with the rover than they may have been earlier in the rover's life, choosing to work their hardest to keep all the instruments functioning today up to the task of future science.

Perseverance, on the other hand, acts like a young go-getter.

  • Instead of setting a leisurely pace, the rover is attempting to learn all it can about Mars as it is booking its way across the planet to another area scientists are hoping to study during its mission.
  • "The whole Mars sample return campaign relies on us getting to that point," Katie Stack Morgan, deputy project scientist for Perseverance, tells Axios. "That's a whole new level of pressure that I think definitely filters down into how we operate day to day."

As for the Hope probe, its name says it all for those intimately involved in its development and operation.

  • "The personality of the Hope Probe is exactly as described — Hope," Mohsen Al Awadhi, director of space missions at the UAE Space Agency, tells Axios via email.
  • "Launched in 2020, when the world was in the midst of a global pandemic and the subsequent turmoil, the Hope Probe offered not only a welcome distraction, but was testament to mankind’s ability to innovate and overcome."

Yes, but: Success isn't guaranteed, even years into a mission.

  • China's Zhurong rover, which landed on Mars in May 2021 and sent back data also suggesting water was persistent on the planet for longer than expected, appears to be dead on the Martian surface.
  • NASA released a series of images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showing China's rover didn't move on the Martian surface between September 2022 and February 2023.

What's next: A number of new missions to the Red Planet are expected to launch in the coming years.

  • NASA is planning to launch a mission to study Mars' magnetosphere in 2024, possibly paving the way for human missions as it aims to understand space weather.
  • The space agency is also using its work on the Moon as a proving ground for crewed missions to Mars eventually.
  • The private companies Relativity Space and Impulse Space are also aiming to launch the first fully private robotic mission to Mars as soon as 2024.
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