(ORDO NEWS) — About once every 26 months, when the planets line up correctly, you can save on sending spacecraft to Mars. Save on rocket fuel. NASA, which has gained considerable experience in this business, rarely misses such an opportunity. US spacecraft flew to Mars in the last six of eight such launch windows.
This summer, two newcomers are ready to jump on the bandwagon of the Martian train: China and the United Arab Emirates. The UAE will be the first Arab country to launch an interplanetary flight. Meanwhile, NASA raises the stakes in this game, starting the first part of its campaign to collect Martian samples and deliver them to Earth.
Another launch is planned, but due to technical delays, and then because of the coronavirus, the joint mission of the European Space Agency and Roskosmos “Exomars” had to be postponed, and it will not get into the current window. The global pandemic is still like a cloud hanging over any plans, making it difficult to conduct the latest tests and transport equipment to the launch pad. But as of the end of April, spacecraft from three different countries were getting ready to go to Mars in July in order to return to Earth in February.
What do they want to achieve?
Hope for a new generation
The rulers of the United Arab Emirates are very fond of their technology. Whether it’s drones or piercing clouds, skyscrapers, this mode always supports risky inventions and prides itself on how technologically advanced it is. In 2020, its space program went further, not limited to launching satellites into low Earth orbit.
In September last year, the UAE sent its first astronaut on an eight-day flight to the ISS. Now this young, oil-rich country wants to do something that other space agencies rarely decide: it intends to send the spacecraft into Martian orbit.
Their UAE program was called “Hope.” The second name is MME (Martian mission of the Emirates). The goals of this mission are very modest. Three cameras will be installed on board the spacecraft to study the atmosphere of Mars in the visible, infrared and ultraviolet range. The ship “Hope” will go in high orbit, designed specifically to observe different places on Mars at different times of the day during the Martian year. The ship will conduct the first measurements for the entire time in the lower layers of the atmosphere, where Martian weather is formed, including dust storms. This is a small scientific niche, but very important.
At the very beginning of the project, UAE scientists and engineers received an order from Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (whose name is the UAE Space Center): “Hope” should arrive on Mars before the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Arab Emirates, which will be celebrated in December 2021. As project manager Omran Sharaf noted at a TED fund conference in 2018, the team also received instructions that Nadezhda should make a significant contribution to science, rather than repeating what others have already done. And part of the design and engineering work had to be carried out in the UAE. “We will not buy, we will build,” Sharaf quoted the Prime Minister.
The UAE Space Agency has joined forces with three American universities that have long been involved in the preparation of NASA’s interplanetary flights. A Japanese rocket will be used to launch the Nadezhda spacecraft. Mike McGrath of the Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics, University of Colorado, who previously worked as a program manager and now became a senior adviser on this project, moved to Dubai three years ago and now praises his colleagues from the UAE in every possible way. “Everyone I work with is a little over 30 years old,” he says. McGrath emphasizes Sharaf and project supervisor Sarah Amiri. “I have never met people of their age and position with the same abilities as theirs. This is amazing, ”he notes.
This is a hint at another goal of the project, which is even more important than the flight to Mars. Speaking in 2018, Sharaf (he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and gained engineering skills in South Korea while working on an Earth observation satellite for the UAE) emphasized that the Hope project was designed to inspire 100 million young people in the Arab region , increase their interest in science and technical design, and indicate to them a new future, which is not limited to oil alone, since it cannot forever support the region’s economy. “Failure on Mars is possible,” he said. “But giving up progress is unacceptable.”
China expands research horizons
For more than 40 years, since the Viking’s flights in the 1970s, the Martian surface has been exclusively American territory. But the moon belongs to China, at least since the beginning of this century. Two landers, Chang’e-3 and Chang’e-4, created small research stations on the lunar surface, landing there in 2013 and 2019, respectively. Both devices delivered to the moon the small “Yuta” lunar rovers (Jade Hare), which can explore the area in close proximity, using cameras, spectrometers and other instruments.
But now China has turned its eyes on Mars. The space program of this country is ambitious and methodical. It is advancing in strict accordance with the plan, and China sometimes at one time achieves several important victories. And instead of starting with sending one simple orbiter, as other space agencies do, China, on the first attempt, sends both an orbiter and a rover to Mars.
The Chinese program is called “Tianwen-1” (Questions to Heaven) by the name of the poem. The five-ton space complex consists of an orbital station and a descent vehicle. It will be launched into space by the Changzheng-5 rocket (The Great Campaign). In Martian orbit, the two parts will separate, and the descent vehicle (in fact, it’s just a platform for the Mars rover), after high-speed descent in the protective casing, will open the parachute and make a soft landing, turning on the braking propulsion system. During the Chang’e lunar missions, China used an impressive array of laser locators and optical sensors to land and to avoid hazards such as large boulders. Tianwen has similar instruments, although landing in the Martian atmosphere is more difficult and dangerous than on the moon,
After landing, a wheeled all-terrain vehicle similar to Yuta (it does not yet have a name) will slide down the ramp from the landing platform and begin exploring the surrounding area. One of the Tianwen instruments – a subsurface sounding radar – was created on the basis of a similar device that was used during flights to the moon. On Earth, such radars are used in many fields, starting with archeology and ending with the search for underground communications. Nobody has ever delivered such a device to Mars, but NASA has one radar of this type on the descent vehicle, which will be launched in 2020. There is she on the European spaceship, the launch of which is postponed. The purpose of using a radar is to look tens of meters into the depths of Mars and understand the local geological structure, as well as the distribution of rock, soil and ice.
It should be clarified that the Tianwen program is not quite the first attempt by China to go to Mars. In 2011, an attempt was made to deliver the Inho-1 Chinese probe to Mars together with the Russian spacecraft. But due to an emergency situation at the launch, a rocket with vehicles fell into the Pacific Ocean. Of course, it was a failure. But then the Chinese space program was younger, and specialists had less self-confidence.
Martian soil collector
In 2011, when American planetologists were asked about what large projects should receive federal funding in the coming decade, they primarily allocated a flight to Mars to collect soil samples. In fact, this requires two flights. During the first, samples of rock and soil are collected, which are stored on Mars. And during a later second flight, these samples are delivered to Earth for a detailed study of what is impossible on Mars. The first part of this plan will involve the NASA Perseverens rover. Its launch is scheduled for July 17 from Cape Canaveral, and it will be the most high-tech flight to Mars.
Having established in previous studies that Mars was once suitable for life, scientists now want to understand whether it was once an inhabited planet. It is more difficult to answer this question, since at present there are no exact biological signs of the existence of life – unless you notice a kangaroo jumping on the Martian surface. Most likely, a preliminary answer can be obtained by studying various data on the chemical composition and physical characteristics of rocky soil, which will show the presence of biological traces. The task of the Persevirens rover is to find the most promising soil, which may contain organic debris.
At first glance, the 2020 mission seems to be a repeat of the expedition of the Curiosity all-terrain vehicle, which has been exploring Mars for the eighth year. “Percevirens” also weighs a ton, has about the same dimensions and design. He has the same system like a “flying winch” (it’s a little scary and looks like a helicopter), which will be used to lower the device to the surface of Mars.
But there are many improvements compared to the previous mission, starting from the landing site, for which the Jesero crater was chosen. All the scientific knowledge gained over 20 years of Martian research by robots went to choose this place. This is the dried-up delta of the ancient river and the bottom of the lake, where the water at one time had to put a lot of different rock samples from different geological places and periods.
Perseverence will use a number of ways to get to its destination as quickly as possible. Among them is a method called “descent through a multitude of values,” which can change the moment the parachute opens when entering the atmosphere, depending on the proximity to the target. Most of the instruments on board the rover are advanced versions of the Curiosity equipment. Navigation cameras give a clearer picture, which became color, rather than black and white. Even the wheels have been upgraded to increase traction in the sand.
The biggest achievement was the Sample Caching System. Arriving at a promising place and finding a sample of rock or soil that can contain useful information (the Sherlock spectrometer and another device can identify organic substances), an all-terrain vehicle with a two-meter robotic arm and a drill can collect up to 14 grams of material that is placed in sterile metal container. At least 30 of these containers will be left on the surface of the earth in a specially designated “storage area”, like message bottles. These samples will wait until they are taken. Containers can remain airtight on Mars for at least 10 years.
Perseverens will also launch a tiny helicopter, and this will be the first flight with a working engine on another planet. And the MOXIE experimental facility will try to extract oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. This will be the prototype device that astronauts on Mars will once need to produce rocket fuel and breathable air.
Much depends on this risky mission worth $ 2.5 billion. However, there is no guarantee that scientists will be able to prove the existence of life on the Red Planet in the past (or refute this idea). The second part of the program for the delivery of samples to Earth is planned for 2026. It will certainly be much more expensive, and so far no one guarantees financing. But NASA has a plan, and the space agency sticks to it. Maybe that’s why it called its Mars rover Perseverens (persistence)?
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