Who else is exploring Mars?
NASA are loud and proud about Perseverance and the landing on 18th February 2021. But they’ll have plenty of company out there exploring Mars. July 2020 was a busy month. In addition to NASA’s launch, the UAE Space Agency (UAESA) launched the Hope Probe, also known as the Emirates Mars Mission (EMM), and the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) launched Tianwen-1, the first Mars mission by China.
The Hope Probe
Let’s start by looking at the Hope Probe, as it entered orbit around Mars first, on the 9th of February. Hope is a satellite developed by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in collaboration with the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). This is the UAESA’s first mission to explore Mars.
It’s a big deal for the country, which does not have as extensive a space program as the US, China, Russia, India, or Europe. Hope is equipped with three instruments (dig in here if you want the nitty gritty details) to collect and transmit data about Mars’s atmosphere back to scientists on Earth. Basically, it sounds like a camera and a couple spectrometers to help scientists understand weather patterns on the planet. The Hope probe will remain in orbit for one Martian year, or around two Earth years. Follow along here if you want to see the images of Mars captured by the Hope probe.
The third one to join the exploration party up on the red planet will be Tianwen-1, sent by the CNSA, which is carrying another rover to (sort of) keep Perseverance company. (Side note: the CNSA don’t seem to publicise quite as much information in English as NASA does regarding their space missions. So I’m relying on an article in Nature Astronomy by the chief scientists of the mission and other news sources for most of my information.) Interestingly, the name Tianwen means ‘questions to heaven’, which is from a poem by a very famous poet from ancient China, Qu Yuan (340-278 BCE). Sadly, I know next to nothing about poetry. So please share with us if you know this poet or the poem they’re quoting from!
Tianwen-1 entered orbit around Mars on the 10th of February and is expected to land at Utopia Planitia sometime in May. Interestingly, this site is apparently the same place that NASA’s Viking 2 mission landed on the 3rd of September 1976. I highly recommend checking out the site for the photos! I’ll be perfectly (and embarrassingly) honest, I had no idea that anyone was going to Mars back then.
Tianwen-1 has already been busy, announcing its arrival by sending back its first photo of Mars.
The mission is to do a survey of the planet from orbit and from the ground using a rover. As such, they’ll be studying the geology of Mars, soil and water-ice distribution, surface material composition, surface climate and environment, and the electromagnetic and gravitational fields of the planet.
Once delivered to the planet, the rover onboard Tianwen-1 will explore Mars’s surface for only 90 Martian days. (For comparison, Perseverance aims to rove around for a full Martian year or 687 Earth days.) It is equipped with cameras, radar, and other detectors to do the surface analysis of the planet. Notably, the rover has not yet been named, and while we eagerly await its landing, there’s a contest on to pick from a selection of 10 names:
- Hongyi: persistence
- Zhurong: a god of fire
- Qilin: a Chinese unicorn
- Chitu: red rabbit
- Qiusuo: to explore, referencing an ancient poem
- Zhuimeng: to pursue a dream
- Nezha: a mythological hero
- Fenghuolun: Nezha’s weapons
- Tianxing: referring to the motion of celestial bodies
- Xinghuo: spark
The contest closes on the 28th of February 2021, and a committee will make a final decision before the rover lands in May. I’m not super clear how to participate in the naming, otherwise I’d add a link here. In any case, check out the space.com article I linked above, and let us know if you have any luck!
Well there’s lots of activity for us to keep an eye on up there. Let us know what we’ve missed, or what you’re most excited about on Mars in the coming days, weeks, and months!