Finding Life on Mars Efforts – Part 2
Two of the three Mars Explorer missions have now been launched.
The first was the United Arab Emirates’ Mars orbiter launched on July 19th from a launch site in southern Japan using a H-IIA rocket. The orbiter named Amal, or Hope, is the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission. Emirati scientists worked with researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder, University of California, Berkeley, and Arizona State University to develop the spacecraft design and the spacecraft itself was assembled at Boulder. Amal, about the size of a small car, carries three instruments to study the upper atmosphere and monitor climate change while circling the red planet for at least two years. This a medium risk mission and I think it should be successful.
The second launch was the Chinese Tianwen-1 spacecraft launched July 23rd by a Long March 5 heavy lift rocket from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island, in the South China Sea. The spacecraft, which consists of an orbiter, a lander, and a rover, is one of the most complicated missions to Mars yet attempted. The plan is for the entire spacecraft to be captured into a highly elliptical orbit around Mars. After a period of observation and orbit tuning the spacecraft will release the lander with rover into an entry trajectory and the lander will affect a soft landing (this is the trickiest part of the mission).
After landing the rover is deployed the searches for signs of life. Its stated objectives are to search for evidence of both current and past life, and to assess the planet's environment. This is a complicated high-risk mission (to date 50% of Mars lander missions have failed) but I wish them luck. I met a lot of the senior team for this mission over twenty years ago when I was Chairman of the Space Exploration Committee for the International Astronautics Federation and they were graduate students presenting their research work publicly for the first time.
The third launch attempt will be Mars on July 30th at 7:50 a.m. EDT, weather permitting. The spacecraft is Mars 2020, NASA’s next flagship mission. The plan is to put the Perseverance Rover on the Martian surface in February 2021. Mars 2020 is seeking signs of past life in Jezero crater, the site of an ancient delta and crater lake. The Mars 2020 rover will also collect a diverse and compelling set of rock and soil samples for potential return to Earth by a future set of missions. One of the highlights of this mission will be the first interplanetary helicopter, Ingenuity, shown in figure 2 below.
Ingenuity rides down on the back of Perseverance and completes a series of flights over a 30-day period. I expect Mars to be very much in the news early in 2021. That is good for our space program and good for humanity in general after the terrible year we are having caused by COVID-19.
Return to the Moon Efforts
As I think you can tell by now, my approach to becoming a space-faring society is to start in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) with tourist facilities and space business parks (primarily zero-gee manufacturing facilities). Once the increased traffic to LEO has reduced launch costs to low $/kg, then move on to exploiting the resources on the moon as key ore deposits on Earth become low grade and expensive to mine. This is all presented in my book, “Chasing the Dream” so I’m not going to dwell on it. The bottom line is that there is a way to colonize both LEO and the Moon that pays back the investments involved. I can’t say the same thing for Mars.
Unfortunately, NASA’s goals don’t include commercial development of space, so they are gung-ho on exploration, i.e. Boots on Mars. Elon Musk wants to go to Mars also, but he wants to take thousands of people with him. I support humans to Mars, but I think NASA (and Elon) are premature in wanting boots on Mars by 2033. I would rather build up a working space infrastructure first and then develop Mars when the Return on Investment (ROI) for doing so is positive.
Thanks for your attention.