The Who’s Who of Mars

by Christine Coates

As NASA’s Mars rover, Perseverance, touched down on the Red Planet February 18th, 2021, we once again witnessed history. There is still a thrill associated with our achievements in space and even Krispy Kreme joined in the day’s events by offering a one-day only “Red Planet” donut! Ah, marketing. Presently, there are 5 different countries with spacecraft on the surface of or orbiting Mars. Why is it that we remain so fascinated with the exploration of the red planet?

Stated primary goals for current missions include the search for signs of past life through water and minerals on the surface. Secondarily we are still looking to determine what will be required for humans to visit the fourth planet from the Sun. And whitey’s on the moon?

Before any country or person can risk a manned visit to Mars, obstacles inherent to the planet itself must be predicted and planned for. Surface temperatures over a Mars year (687 Earth days) fluctuate anywhere between –200 °F and + 70 °F (I’ll take 70F, if I have the choice), depending on location and time of year. The AVERAGE temperature on Mars is an unsustainable –81 °F, unfortunately. And it’s not just about temperatures. Martian dust storms can last anywhere from days to months. This makes it exceptionally challenging for the mostly solar-powered vehicles on the ground and presents potential power obstacles for future colonization.

That being said, scientists do have hope that, eventually, these obstacles can be overcome, and the collected data these missions relay back home is imperative to achieving the goal of human visitation to the planet by 2050. Here’s a look at the spaceships that are currently trying to provide us with this information (and a few other notables that have made major contributions).

PERSEVERANCE

Launch: July 30, 2020

MARS Surface Landing: Feb 18, 2021

STATUS: Landed

TYPE: Rover

Sponsored by: NASA

The newest arrival to the planet, the primary mission of the Perseverance rover is to explore the surface for evidence of habitability (both past and present), search for biosignatures, collect samples of its surface and ultimately provide any information that will help aid in the preparation for Humans (if not to colonize, at least, as visitors). Perseverance is equipped with a power generator using plutonium oxide as its fuel source instead of the traditional solar powered rovers. Utilizing this different power source will allow explorations to occur during the night, during dust storms, and through the winter. Solar powered rovers have always been designed to go into sleep mode during these times and limit data for varying seasons. This rover is also carrying a small drone helicopter, Ingenuity, which will be used for scouting the surface and help determine locations for future missions. Ingenuity is solar powered, and if all goes well with the landing, is expected to be operational by the end of March.

TIANWEN-1 (TW-1)

Launch: July 23, 2020

Arrived MARS Orbit: Feb 10, 2021

STATUS: In Orbit

TYPE: Orbiter, Lander and Rover

Sponsored by: China National Space Administration

TW-1 is equipped as an orbiter, with a lander and a rover. The spacecraft has already arrived in Martian orbit. Its lander is scheduled to hit the surface in early May, and its rover deployed by the end of May. The orbiter will serve as the telecommunications link, as well as study the atmosphere surrounding the Red planet. The ground mission is expected to run for 90 days, with the objective of collecting data on the geology of the planet as well as past and present evidence of water and water flow. If successful, China will be the 4th country from Earth to land on Mars and will be the 2nd country to deploy a rover.

AL-AMAL (HOPE) MARS MISSION

Launch: July 19, 2020

Arrived MARS Orbit: Feb 9, 2021

STATUS: In Orbit

TYPE: Orbiter and Probe

Sponsored by: United Arab Emirates (UAE)

The Hope Mars Mission is the 1st of its kind from an Arab country, and 5th country overall to reach Mars Orbit. The UAE space agency is spearheaded by the Dubai government organization and is intended to enrich the capabilities of Emirati engineers and encourage innovation. The Hope mission is equipped with an orbiter and a probe, and its overall mission is to observe and collect data on the daily and seasonal weather cycles, weather events (like dust storms) and drastic climate changes. It is intended to be a 2-year mission and will result in a holistic model of the Mars atmosphere. The probe is expected to begin its mission in December 2021. The name HOPE was chosen to send a message of optimism to the younger generation.

ExoMARS TRACE GAS ORBITER (TGO)

Launch: March 14, 2016

Arrived MARS Orbit: Oct 16, 2016

STATUS: In Orbit

TYPE: Orbiter and Lander

Sponsored by: Collaboration between European Space Agency and Russian Roscosmos Agency

TGO is led by European ExoMars mission. TGO began as a joint initiative with NASA, but due to necessary budget cuts in 2012, NASA was forced to pull out. Expected to fulfill a 7-year mission, the orbiter and its lander, Schiaparelli, set out to study the impact of methane and other trace gasses present in the Martian atmosphere and surface. Unfortunately, due to an error in the parachute deployment, Schiaparelli crashed into the surface upon landing in 2016. TGO continued to do research from the orbit, but surface information was now lost. Upon completion of its atmospheric research mission, TGO is expected to stay in the Mars Orbit and serve as the telecommunications link for ExoMars lander and rover, Rosalind Franklin, scheduled to launch in September 2022.

Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN)

Launch: Nov. 18, 2013

Arrived MARS Orbit: Sept 22, 2014

STATUS: In Orbit

TYPE: Orbiter

Sponsored by: NASA

MAVEN almost didn’t make its launch date, as a government shutdown in October 2013 caused a halt in its preparedness. Deemed critical to serve as a communications link for the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers that were already on the planet, emergency funding was secured, and the launch stayed on schedule. In addition to its use in telecommunications, MAVEN’s primary mission was to study the Mars atmosphere and ionosphere, and to observe and document how solar wind impacts that atmosphere. Even though its initial mission has been completed, MAVEN remains in orbit operating as a telecom relay, and is expected to remain in that capacity until 2030.

MARS ORBITER MISSION (MOM) aka MANGALYAAN (“Mars Craft”)

Launch: Nov 5, 2013

Arrive MARS Orbit: Sept. 24, 2014

STATUS: In Orbit

TYPE: Orbiter

Sponsored by: Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)

Mangalyaan is India’s first Interplanetary mission, which made India the 2nd country to reach Mars orbit on their maiden voyage. Being a first attempt, the primary purpose for MOM is as ax prototype to assist in the development of technologies necessary for Interplanetary missions. Secondarily, MOM was to explore surface features. Originally intended as a 6-month mission, MOM is still in orbit. Mars Orbiter Mission 2 (MOM-2, Mangalyaan 2) is scheduled to launch in 2024, and is targeting an inclusion of a lander and a rover for a ground mission. FUN FACT: Commemorating this accomplishment for the country, the 2000 currency note of India features a rendering of Mangalyaan on one side.

CURIOSITY

Launch: Nov 26, 2011

MARS Surface Landing: Aug. 6, 2012

STATUS: Operational

TYPE: Rover

Sponsored by: NASA

The Phoenix lander was the 6th successful landing on Mars. As with most missions, its purpose was to observe and collect samples to determine the geological history and water/climate changes that will assist in evaluating potential planetary habitability. Phoenix was also able to confirm the existence of water as seen by the Odyssey orbiter. Phoenix was the first NASA mission to Mars led by a public university (University of Arizona) and the Lunar and Planetary Lab. Sadly, communication was lost with Phoenix in November 2008 – and in pictures taken from orbit, was seen encased in Dry Ice. Even though NASA was hopeful to regain contact after the winter freeze, it was determined that the solar panels were irreversibly damaged by the Martian Winter, eliminating its ability to recharge. This mission was still considered a success, as it completed all its planned experiments and observations. End of Mission was declared on May 24, 2010

MARS RECONNAISSANCE ORBITER (MRO)

Launch: Aug. 12, 2005

Arrive MARS Orbit: March 10, 2006

STATUS: In Orbit

TYPE: Orbiter

Sponsored by: NASA

The mission for MRO was to observe planet climate, seasonal variations and atmospheric circulation, map and characterize topography, find evidence of any signs of water, and identify future landing sites. Initially slated as a 5-year mission, MRO continues to operate today and plays a critical role as a telecommunications relay for ground missions. At this time, NASA intends to use the orbiter as long as possible. FUN FACT: MRO has circled the Red Planet over 60,000 times since its arrival in Mars orbit.

MARS EXPLORATIONS ROVERS (MER)

SPIRIT (MER-A) and OPPORTUNITY (MER-B)

Launch: June 10 and July 7, 2003, respectively

MARS Surface Landing: Jan. 4 and Jan. 25, 2004, respectively

STATUS: Closed

TYPE: Rovers

Sponsored by: NASA

Commonly referred to as the Twins, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers were launched and landed within a month of each other – although they landed on opposite sides of MARS. Their missions were to identify potential habitability of the planet, observe climate and geology, and collect samples to characterize minerals and determine the existence of water.

Spirit observed and photographed the two moons of Mars and was able to offer beautiful panoramic photos of the planet’s surface. Unfortunately, the rover found itself stuck in the sand and exhausted all emergency power supplies trying to free itself. Communication with Spirit was lost on March 22, 2010.

Opportunity discovered an intact meteor and is credited with the discovery of conditions suitable for ancient life. Opportunity also became stuck, but over the course of a month (and very small movements), was able to get free. Communication with the rover was lost on June 10, 2019, after what is believed to be the result of damage from a planetary dust storm. Attempts to regain contact were made for almost a year, but to no avail. Opportunity exceeded its operating plan by 14 years and is considered to be one of NASA’s most successful missions. FUN FACT: The last communication sent from NASA to the rover was the lyric “I’ll Be Seeing You” by Billie Holiday.

MARS EXPRESS ORBITER

Launch: June 2, 2003

Arrive MARS Orbit: December 20, 2003

STATUS: In Orbit

TYPE: Orbiter

Sponsored by: European Space Agency (ESA)

Mars Express Orbiter was the 1st planetary mission attempted by the ESA and was the 1st Russian launched craft to successfully make it out of low orbit of Earth since the fall of the Soviet Union. Its main mission was to map the mineralogy of the surface, and to study the interior subsurface, surface and atmosphere and environment of MARS. It was strategically launched when the orbits of Earth and Mars were closer than they had been in about 60,000 years. The orbiter was also equipped with a lander, Beagle 2, but it failed to deploy when it reached the surface. Express is still orbiting today and has a nearly completed topography of the Red Planet. It is the 2nd longest surviving orbiter behind 2001 Mars Odyssey.

2001 MARS ODYSSEY

Launch: Apr. 7, 2001

Arrive MARS Orbit: Oct. 24, 2001

STATUS: In Orbit

TYPE: Orbiter

Sponsored by: NASA

Odyssey’s primary missions were to discover water and ice, determine possibility of previous life on MARS, study geology and radiation, and determine potential landing sites and radiation risk-assessment for future missions. The orbiter detected Hydrogen, indicative of water and bulk water ice near the surface, and was able to map the basic distribution of water below the planet surface. Odyssey continues to be operational and is expected to remain functional as a communication relay to Earth from ground missions until 2025. FUN FACT: NASA specifically requested the blessing of Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, before officially naming the rover (he had no objections).

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Organization: UrbanLink Media

Phone: 1-855-730-5465

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