On July this year, the UAE, China and the US have launched their own Mars Missions to study the red planet. These intend to provide more details on the changes in the planet from being once a supporter of life to the one that cannot support life as we know it.
Why explore Mars?
- Past studies of Mars revealed that the planet was once quite capable of hosting ecosystems and that it might still be an incubator for microbial life.
- Mars is more than half of Earth’s size, with gravity only 38% of Earth’s.
- It takes longer than the Earth to complete a full orbit around the Sun.
- However, it rotates around its axis at roughly the same speed.
- Thus, one year on Mars in 687 Earth Days and a day on Mars is just 40 minutes longer than on Earth.
- Despite its smaller size, the red planet’s land area is also roughly equivalent to the surface area of the Earth’s continents. This means that Mars may have the same amount of habitable real estate.
- However, the planet is currently wrapped around a thin carbon dioxide atmosphere and cannot support Earthly life-forms.
- Methane gas also appears periodically in the atmosphere and the soil contains compounds that could be toxic to Earth-based life.
- Though water does exist on Mars, it is locked into the planet’s icy polar caps and may be buried beneath the Martian surface.
- The recent studies of the Martian surface show that the planet, in the past, may have had a vast ocean covering its northern hemisphere.
- Elsewhere, there was evidence of rainstorms, lakes, rivers and carving troughs.
- They were likely wrapped in a thick atmosphere capable of maintaining liquid water at Martian temperature and pressure.
- However, a series of evolutions led to the planet that was once Earth-like become the dusty, dry husk that we now see.
- The Mars exploration aims to study this transformation, learn about momentous shifts in climate that fundamentally modify the planets.
- The objective is also to look into biosignatures, signs that might reveal whether life was abundant in the planet’s past and if it still exists today.
- These studies may equip us in making a living there in the future.
What were the Mars Missions launched in July 2020?
Three nations launched their own Mars missions in July. These are as follows:
United Arab Emirates:
- On 20th July, the UAE launched its Hope Mars Mission aboard a Japanese rocket called Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIA from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Centre.
- This launch marked the first of the three missions planned to Mars in July 2020.
- Hope is the first planetary science mission led by an Arab country. It is the fourth space mission of the UAE. The previous three were all Earth-Observation satellites.
- This project was announced in July 2014.
- The orbital probe will perform atmosphere, weather and climate observation with its infrared and ultraviolet spectrometer and high-resolution camera.
- It will also look into the possibility of Mars’ life-giving past.
- This mission is scheduled to last for 1 Martian year (687 Earth days).
- The objective is to create a long-term, planet-wide picture of Martian climate that reveals how the red planet’s weather patterns shift over days and years.
- This data obtained will also be used to work out the mechanisms that leached oxygen and hydrogen out of the Marian atmosphere, which was previously warmer and wetter with plenty of oxygen.
- Those processes have now left the planet dry, frigid and barren.
- This project gives the UAE an opportunity to build a more robust scientific community, to build national prestige and to contribute directly to the global effort to uncover the historical life on Mars.
- Hope’s arrival at Mars is scheduled to coincide with the UAE’s 50th anniversary in 2021. Formed in 1971 out of 7 smaller nations or emirates, the UAE is a young nation with a population of less than 10 million on the southeastern part of the Arabian peninsula, bordering Saudi Arabia and Oman.
- The Hope mission is run by Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre.
- It is a joint project between the UAE and the University of Colorado Boulder, University of California, Berkeley and Arizona State University.
- On 23rd July, China’s first-ever independent mission to Mars, Tianwen-1 (formerly Huoxing 1), which means “questions to heaven”, was launched aboard a Chinese-developed Long March 5 rocket from Xichang, China.
- The launch craft consists of an orbiter, a lander and a 240 kg rover.
- The orbiter carries radar and a camera to measure and map the Mars’ morphology, electromagnetic and gravitational fields and the ionosphere.
- The rover will operate for 90 Mars days. It will map soil characteristics and water-ice distribution, and also study climate and environment.
- The Tianwen-1 will reach the red planet’s orbit in February 2021 and the rover will land in May.
- The orbiter will use a high-resolution camera to search for a suitable landing site somewhere in the Utopia Panitia region.
- On 30th July, the US’ Jet Propulsion Laboratory launched a six-wheeled self-driving rover, Perseverance, a twin-rotor helicopter, Ingenuity, and an orbiter, NAVEN.
- It will take around 203 days or seven months for the landing craft to reach the surface of Mars and for the mission to start collecting data.
- The target of this mission is to study Jezero Crater, a site of an ancient river delta and a likely location for ancient life-forms to have thrived.
- Perseverance was developed to address the faults of NASA’s current generation rover on Mars, Curiosity, which includes response delay of up to 24 minutes. This makes live operations impossible and obstacle avoidance time-consuming.
- Perseverance’s self-driving capabilities can overcome these communication challenges.
- It can travel faster and farther around more obstacles on the Martian surface than Curiosity.
- It has a drone helicopter, called Ingenuity, aboard. This is the first aircraft to fly on the surface of another planet.
- It also has an experiment designed for generating oxygen out of the Martian atmosphere, as a proof of concept for future rocket fuel on the Red Planet.
- Perseverance is going to drill into Mars and collect samples of rocks that may contain evidence of life.
- The follow-up plan of this mission is to collect these samples from Mars and return them to Earth.
Why so many in July 2020?
- Earth is the third closest planet to the Sun and Mars is the fourth, which influences the orbits of the planets around the sun as well as the number of days that equal a year on each planet.
- The Earth is moving around the Sun at a speed of 67,000 miles per hour, which creates the 365-day orbit.
- As Mars is farther from the Sun, it is slower and takes longer time to revolve.
- The planets are moving around elliptical orbits and Mars’ orbit is pulled by Jupiter, which can change the orbit’s shape.
- The orbits of Mars and Earth are also slightly tilted in their orbits.
- Mars reaches its closest point to Earth every 26 months.
- Launches are targeted at this time, as the spacecraft leaving Earth will experience a shorter trip to Mars, limiting the resources used for the Mars Missions.
- Other factors like the lift capability of the launch vehicle, the mass of the spacecraft and landing time, also help in determining the launch window.
- According to NASA, Mars will be at its closest to Earth in October, at only 6 million miles distance.
How did Mars missions come to be?
- Since the 1960s, humans have sent many spacecraft to study Mars.
- The early missions were flybys, with spacecraft taking pictures of the planet as they flew by.
- Later, space probes were put on the orbit around Mars. More recently, landers and rovers have touched down on the surface of the red planet.
- However, sending a spacecraft to Mars is hard and landing is even harder.
- The planet’s thin atmosphere makes descent challenging and more than 60% of the landing attempts have failed.
- So far, four space agencies, NASA, Russia’s Roscosmos, the European Space Agency (ESA) and ISRO, have put spacecraft in the Martian orbit.
- With the 8 successful landings, the US is the only country that has operated a craft on the planet’s surface.
- The UAE and China might join this club if their recently launched Hope and Tianwen-1 mission reach the Martian surface safely in February 2021.
- Early highlights of Mars missions include NASA’s Mariner 4 spacecraft, which swung by Mars in July 1965 and captured the first close-up images of the planet.
- In 1971, the Soviet space program sent the first spacecraft called Mars 3 into the Martian orbit. It returned 8 months of observations about the planet’s topography, atmosphere, weather and geology. This mission, though it sent a lander to the surface, provided only around 20 seconds of data before going quiet.
- During the subsequent decades, orbiters returned far more detailed data on the planet’s atmosphere and surface.
- These helped reveal some remarkable features – the planet consists of the largest volcanoes in the solar system and has one of the largest canyons yet to be discovered.
- In 1976, NASA’s Viking 1 and 2 became the first spacecraft to successfully operate on the planet’s surface, returning photos until 1982.
- These conducted biological experiments on Martian soil in order to uncover signs of life in space. The results of these experiments are inconclusive and scientists do not agree on how to interpret the data.
- In 1996, NASA launched the Mars Pathfinder mission, which put the first free-moving rover called Sojourner on the planet. Its successors are the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which explored the planet for a longer duration of time than expected and returned more than 100,000 images before the dust storms obliterated their solar panels in the 2010s.
- Currently, two NASA spacecraft are active on the surface of the red planet. These are InSight and Curiosity.
- The InSight is probing the planet’s interior and it had already revealed that “marsquake” routinely shakes the Martian surface.
- The Curiosity rover, which was launched in 2012, is also still exploring the Gale Carter, taking pictures and studying rocks and sediments deposited in the carter’s ancient lakebed.
- Several spacecraft are currently sending data from orbit:
- NASA: MAVEN orbiter, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey
- ESA: Mars Express and Trace Gas Orbiter
- ISRO: Mars Orbiter Mission
- Together, these missions have shown that Mars is an active planet with rich elements needed to support life with water, organic carbon and an energy source.
What is the Mangalyaan mission?
- Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), also called Mangalyaan Mission (Hindi term for ‘Mars Craft’) is India’s first interplanetary spacecraft.
- ISRO launched this mission on 5th November 2013, using Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on Sriharikota Island, Andhra Pradesh.
- This was done just 15 months after the government approval.
- ISRO was able to keep the mission costs down by basing MOM’s design on that of Chandrayaan-1, India’s first Moon probe.
- The MOM arrived at Mars on 24th September 2014 and the spacecraft has taken pictures of one entire Martian hemisphere at a time.
- The spacecraft has a colour camera, a thermal infrared sensor, an ultraviolet spectrometer to study deuterium and hydrogen in Mars’ upper atmosphere, a mass spectrometer to study neutral particles in the Martian exosphere and a sensor for methane (indicates the possibility of life).
- The mission, which was initially meant to last six months, has completed 5 years of orbiting in 2019.
- It helped ISRO prepare a Martian Atlas based on the images provided by the orbiter.
- The Mars Colour Camera took close distance images of Phobos and Deimos, the two moons of Mars.
- MOM is the only Martian artificial satellite that could capture the full disc of Mars in one view frame and also takes images of the far side of Deimos.
- A significant conclusion of this mission is the finding that dust storms on Mars can rise up to hundreds of kilometres.
What is interplanetary contamination?
- With the increasing number of space missions, along with the advances in commercial space flight, astrobiologists are concerned about the possibility of ‘interplanetary contamination’.
- Such contaminations are of two types:
- Forward contamination
- Back contamination
- Forward contamination is the transport of Earth-based microbes to other celestial bodies.
- Previous space missions have established physical contact with astronomical bodies like the moon, comets and asteroids.
- However, these bodies are known to be hostile to life, creating a lesser possibility of their forward contamination.
- However, Mars missions have revealed the possibility of the presence of liquid water on the planet’s surface today or at some point in its past.
- Currently, scientists are looking for signs of life on the neighbouring planet.
- Astrobiologists believe that if there is a chance that Mars has life, even in its most primitive form, there is an ethical obligation on humanity to ensure that microbes from Earth do not disturb a possible Martian biosphere, allowing it to evolve in its own way.
- Experts also worry that the Earth-based organisms could spoil the integrity of the Red Planet’s samples that rovers want to study, disrupting the signs of native Martian life.
- Back contamination is the transfer of extra-terrestrial organisms (if they exist) into the Earth’s biosphere.
- NASA is planning for a mission to return the samples collected from Mars back to Earth by 2031.
- There are concerns about back contamination from this mission.
- Scientists, however, rule out the possibility of back contamination as it is highly unlikely that Martian microbes (if they exist) would infect human beings. This is because Martian microbes’ biochemistry would be more different from that on Earth.
What are the measures taken to prevent possible interplanetary contamination?
- The United Nations Outer Space Treaty, 1967, which serves as a bulwark against the militarization of space, also requires nations to address contamination risk.
- To ensure compliance with the Treaty, the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) lays down a ‘planetary protection policy’.
- This policy aims to limit the number of microbes sent to other planets and also ensuring that alien life does not in any way affect the Earth.
- These guidelines have had far-reaching implications on human spacecraft design, operational procedures and overall mission structure.
- NASA and ESA have Planetary Protection Officers specifically for this purpose.
- To prevent forward contamination, space missions take care to ensure that spacecraft are sterilised. Previous Mars missions were all sterilised before the launch.
- NASA’s recent Perseverance mission was postponed for the second time to resolve the potential contamination issue.
- In the case of back contamination, sterilisation is not an option, as it would destroy the extraterrestrial samples.
- Containment would be the only option to break the chain of contact between potential alien microbes and life on Earth.
What is next for Mars Missions?
- All of the robotic activities on Mars are laying the groundwork for sending humans to the red planet.
- NASA is targeting the 2030s as a reasonable timeframe for setting the first manned Mars Mission and is developing space capsule Orion that will be able to ferry humans to the moon and beyond.
- Private spaceflight companies like SpaceX are becoming a part of Mars exploration.
Planetary exploration is vital for the better understanding of the beginning of time and the changes that considerably alter planets. This is significant as it also enables understanding of the climate change on Earth, which is impacting the lives of all living organisms on the planet.
Practice question for mains:
Why were there numerous Mars missions during July 2020? Explain their purposes and significance. (250 words)