In rapid succession we have 3 different probes reaching Mars close together. First we had the United Arab Emirates probe “Hope,” launched aboard a Japanese booster. It will study the Martian atmosphere. Among other things we need to understand how the planet is periodically engulfed in massive dust storms and how to predict them.
The Chinese got into the act as well. Their probe, Tianwen-1, just went into a polar orbit around Mars. Later it will send a rover to the surface to scout for signs of life. This is China’s most complex mission ever, having recently sent a lander to the far side of the moon.
I think a space race is developing between the US and China with China trying to rack up accomplishments to prove they are in the same league as the US. The long term issue with this kind of competition is that once you’ve won – or lost- you stop putting in the effort. Like the Apollo program where we beat the Soviets to the moon and then promptly lost interest in it.
Competitors forget that there really is no finish line, but rather a never ending journey. Finish lines are really just ports of call on the way to ever greater unknowns. You will never reach the horizon. While I’d prefer a steady march into the future, progress thru competition is marked by fits of intense activity and long periods of stagnation. But… if competition is more effective than cooperation in getting space explored, developed, and eventually colonized, I’ll take it.
The space probe most of the world is looking at is the American made Perseverance. It is the most complex planetary probe ever built. It will enter the Martian atmosphere and initially slow by aerobraking and when it has slowed enough, a supersonic parachute will open to slow it further. Retrorockets will them slow it to hover over the Martian surface to look for a safe place to touch down. Finally, the rover will separate and be lowered to the ground by cables using a “sky crane” so that dust doesn’t get stirred up which could coat instruments and infiltrate joints.
Perseverance uses the same vehicle as the spectacularly successful Curiosity rover but will have more instruments, specifically optimized to look for signs of life..It is landing where the delta of an ancient river entered an equally ancient lake and it is not impossible there might be evidence of subsurface water. It will drill soil samples from different depths and locations and what it does not analyze immediately will be set aside for a future return mission. But… that’s not all.
On board is a helicopter drone named Ingenuity. It will range over large areas, seeking out likely locations to prospect and guide the rover safely to them. If it works here, it can be used for other alien worlds with an atmosphere, such as Saturn’s moon Titan.
Of course, this assumes every step of an insanely complex process in an alien environment goes perfectly. Mars is hard. Only 60% of the probes sent there survive to do their job. It is good to do things that are hard It is how one expends your capabilities. It makes you stronger. In the future the same job isn’t as hard so you set your goals higher.