Back in 1964, the US launched the first probe to Mars, Mariner 3. Then in 1976, we sent the first lander, Viking 1. Then Sojourner, the first rover, launched in 1995 and landed in 1997. We have kind of made the Red Planet our distant backyard.
If all goes to plan, on the 30th of July we’ll be sending the most complex scientific package ever sent to Mars, the Perseverance rover. The plan is to land near a crater known to have been filled with water in the past and take samples from around and within it. Some of those samples will also be analyzed on-site but most will be stored for recovery by a retrieval mission.
Perseverance will be able to drive around on its own for several hundred meters without remote control from Mission Control with terrain mapping radar. Mars is so far away that it takes several minutes for control signals to get there. Previous rovers would have to wait for our signal, move, then send the results back to us and wait for another command. Talk about latency! We can tell Perseverance to go to a place and it will decide the best path and simply go there without micromanagement.
Along for the ride, there’s a weather station, radar for studying the subsurface. extreme high-resolution cameras, assorted other scientific instruments, and a demonstrator for in-situ oxygen production from Martian resources. This is very important if we are to start sending people for long term habitation – or if we intend to get any of those folks back. It will take both locally produced fuel and oxygen to do that.
The neatest thing is the drone. It will have two opposite rotating propellers and fly around looking for interesting places to visit.
Mars seems to be quite the destination of late. Two days ago the United Arab Emirates launched a Mars orbital mission from Japan named “Hope.” China has also just launched it’s Tianwen-1 Mars mission that includes an orbiter, a lander, and a rover. Japan and the European Space Agency have their own projects in the works.
Go China! Go UAE!
I am completely uninterested in a “space race.” I am interested in the science that comes back from these missions. There is nothing to be proven. Everyone has advanced technology. It is the will to use that technology in pursuit of an abstract ideal of exploration that counts. Maybe a vision of humanity that doesn’t involve borders and militaries and people hating each because of their precious diversity.
I think we can thank Elon Musk and his dream for a lot of this activity. If anyone can spread humanity to another planet, it is him.