China’s Tianwen-1 mission just launched for Mars, its name meaning ‘questions to heaven’. The UAE’s Hope probe set off a few days earlier. Next week, NASA’s Perseverance rover is scheduled to follow en route to the red planet. 

Not a competition, for now

These inter-planetary ventures are hyped-up as expensive global political posturing, often described as the new space race. That is part of the story, for sure, and explains why they are given such grandiose titles.

However, the congested period of Mars launches does not yet signify a race. Approximately every 26 months, Mars and Earth are closer than usual, making now the logical time for lift-off.

It is too easily forgotten that the engine of such epic endeavours into the unknown are not politicians, but scientists and engineers. So, what drives the real workers behind these quests? That is, what is the scientific case for visiting Mars? 

Mapping the atmosphere

Upon arrival, the Emirati Hope probe will orbit the planet. According to the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, circulating for almost 700 (Earth) days will ‘provide a complete picture of the Martian atmosphere’. This involves building a global weather map and gathering data to identify why Mars loses oxygen and hydrogen from its upper atmosphere. 

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TOPSHOT – A Long March-5 rocket, carrying an orbiter, lander and rover as part of the Tianwen-1 mission to Mars, lifts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre in southern China’s Hainan Province on July 23, 2020. (Photo by Noel CELIS / AFP) (Photo by NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images)

China chasing at treble speed

In its bid to catch up with the US, China aims to orbit, land, and rove all in one mission. Combining a land rover with observations coordinated from an orbiter would signify a major technical breakthrough at the first try. 

Having failed in a joint martian attempt with Russia in 2011, last year the chief mission architect Zhang Rongqiao acknowledged the risks and stated the broad goal to ‘explore and gather as much scientific data as possible’. This is convenient. Even if complications occur, it can still be sold as a success story. 

A more recent Nature Astronomy paper expands on the Chinese scientific objectives. These are wide-ranging and include: mapping geological structure, analysing the surface, ionosphere, and climate, perceiving planetary electromagnetic and gravitational fields, and investigating the inner structure of Mars. 

NASA and future competition

Perseverance is the latest of many US rovers to have explored the surface of the red planet. NASA details how it will hunt for clues of previous habitable conditions on Mars and any signatures of ‘past microbial life’. 

For all three, this is just a warm-up, a reconnaissance relay. The space agencies discuss enhancing the global exploration effort, collaboratively sharing data, and building human capabilities. 

No team is yet ready to put a man or woman onboard a mission to Mars. As soon as they are, the real race will begin. 

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