The Race to Mars in 2020
Mars is our next-door neighbor, and yet. . . we almost never visit. We sent the InSight lander in 2018, an orbiterand lander combo in 2016, and two orbitersbefore that in 2013. Basically one or two missions every coupleof years or so. But in July of 2020, humans are launchingfour separate missions to Mars. What is going on up there?Why all at once?Is there some incredible black Friday salegoing on or something?Sadly, no – no amazing TV deals are to behad on Mars. But the July 2020 launch window does offergreat savings… on rocket fuel. The reason all these missions are launchingthen is because that is the ideal time toget a craft to Mars while using the leastamount of fuel. But it’s not when the two planets are attheir closest, as you might expect. The most efficient way to send a spacecraftto Mars is using something called a HohmannTransfer Orbit. This orbit is elliptical, and uses the sunas one focal point. The spacecraft’s launch is at the closestpoint to the sun, or perihelion, and it crossesMars’ path at its farthest point from thesun, or aphelion. It is very important, I cannot stress thisenough, that Mars is actually there when thespacecraft arrives. No duh, right?But for that to happen the spacecraft hasto be launched at just the right time. The time it takes a spacecraft to travel fromperihelion to its aphelion in Mars’ orbitis about 259 days. During that time Mars will move about 136degrees, since Mars is farther from the sunthan Earth and takes longer to move the sameangular distance. So in order to sync up the 180 degrees thespacecraft will travel while Mars moves 136degrees, the spacecraft needs to launch whenMars has a 44 degree head start. This happens for a few weeks once every 26months, and the next time it will happen is,you guessed it, mid-July of 2020. And this time around a lot of space agenciesare geared up for launch. First up, with a scheduled launch window ofJuly 17th to August 5th is another Mars Roverfrom NASA, named Perseverance. The latest car-sized bot is landing with thegoal of searching for signs of microbial life,and determining if Mars’ environment wasmore hospitable to it in the past. It will also collect and cache samples ofrock and regolith, and test oxygen productionin the atmosphere. The rover will also touch down with an autonomoushelicopter on board. That’s right: it’s bringing a drone toMars, though this one is specially made forthe thin Martian atmosphere. It will carry no scientific instruments; itsonly goal is to test if this is an awesomeor dumb idea. Next on the docket is a joint mission fromthe European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos. The mission’s rover, provided by ESA, isnamed Rosalind Franklin, after the pioneeringEnglish chemist and x-ray crystallographerwhose work was instrumental in discovery ofthe structure of DNA. She basically took a picture of the doublehelix. Franklin died unrecognized for her contributionin 1958. It’s good to see her get a nod from ESAmore than 60 years later. Rosalind Franklin will explore what scientiststhink may have been an ancient ocean. Like the NASA mission, the rover will searchfor signs of life past and present. It will use a camera attached to a drill tostudy the soil it brings to the surface andI can’t think of a much better tribute toRosalind Franklin than a camera searchingfor signs of life on another world. Finally, the remaining two missions are importantmilestones for two different space agencies. The United Arab Emirates will launch its Hopeorbiter sometime in July, with the goal ofstudying Mars’ fading atmosphere. If it goes as planned, the UAE will claimthe title as the first Arab nation to senda spacecraft to Mars. China is also planning to send an orbiterand rover combo named HX-1 to Mars. This will be their second attempt, after theirfirst Mars orbiter was stranded in Earth’sorbit and then destroyed by our atmosphereback in 2012. With this stellar lineup of missions, July2020 will be an exciting time for Mars exploration. Hopefully all goes as planned, and 259 dayslater we’ll have a new squad circling thered planet and kicking up regolith. Because if not, we have to wait 26 monthsfor another shot. And you thought waiting a year between TVshow seasons was hard. ESA and Roscosmos’s mission is launchingin 2020 after missing its original plannedwindow in 2018 due to technical setbacks. The 26-month wait has helped make this summerone of busiest seasons of Mars launches yet. Thanks for watching. If you want more Mars videos, check out thisone I did on why the Mole on NASA’s InSightlander can’t seem to burrow beneath Mars’ surface. Be sure subscribe, and I’ll see you nexttime on Seeker.