The MARS Pro 3D printed model shows the red hues that define the surface of Mars today. However, a planet is not a static thing. Mountains rise and erode, ice caps expand and retreat and even a quiet place like Mars can change. While much of the planet will stay the same for a while to come, our understanding of it is about to be revolutionized. The year 2020 will see three different missions launch today Mars to explore, dig, sample and examine it like never before. NASA and the US, China and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will all be launching missions this year. These will be the first-ever trips to Mars for the scientists and engineers from China and the UAE.
Mars is going to have a great 2020. Orbital mechanics put the Earth and Mars on the same side of the Sun every 26 months and the next close approach occurs on October 13, 2020. These close approaches are called Oppositions, since Mars and the Sun are on exact opposite sides of Earth. Since both Mars and Earth have elliptical orbits, the distance between the planets depends on where on this orbit they are meeting. These close approaches can range from as little as 34 million miles to as much as 63 million miles depending on where in the orbit they occur. The October 2020 Opposition is one of the better events as the planets are only 38.6 million miles apart.
Earth and Mars average about 150 million miles apart and can be up to 250 million miles apart when they are on opposite sides of the Sun. The close approaches of Opposition are a big deal for two reasons, one historical and one modern. When Mars gets close, it becomes much easier to see. At Opposition, it rises with the sunset and shines bright all night. It also reaches its largest appearance and shines like a particularly bright star. The first close up look at Mars occurred in 1659 when the Dutch Astronomer Christiaan Huygens first pointed a telescope at the planet and made the first-ever sketch map of another planet. Every 26 months since then, the Mars Opposition made it into a favorite target of astronomers around the world who tried to map out the features on the planet. These maps became the base of our understanding of the planet for centuries. It was on these evolving maps, that channel, then canals were suggested, leading to the idea that life and civilizations might exist on Mars and be busy building cities and maybe spaceships. This thinking culminated in popular culture with books like H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, where canal-building Martians invade Earth looking for water. Even today, the Martian Opposition is a time when Hubble and some of the best Earth-based telescopes turn from their usual deep-sky views to get great views of the Red Planet.
Today, Mars Opposition offers a new opportunity. The close planetary approach offers the most efficient pathway to travel from Earth to Mars, termed the Hohmann transfer orbit. By taking advantage of Opposition, spacecraft can travel to Mars with the least energy and time, saving millions of dollars in rocket fuel and months of cruise time. Every 26 months, the space agencies of the world have the opportunity to explore the red planet. This time, 2020, three missions will be launching to Mars. They will launch in the summer of 2020, about four months before the October Opposition, and plan to land in the Spring of 2021, about four months after it. These missions by NASA, China and UAE promise to test exciting new technology and explore Mars deeper than ever before.
NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is built on the heritage of its Curiosity Rover that has been exploring Mars since 2012. Updates with new hardware and all new instruments, Mars 2020 will be the first mission to collect samples intended to be returned to Earth for analysis. After decades of exploration and multiple rover missions, the Mars science community decided that several critical questions about Mars can only be answered if samples are brought back to Earth to be analyzed with the best instruments that we have. These questions, the most important of which was if life ever existed on Mars, could not be answered with instruments we could send to another planet.
This led to the creation of a program called Mars Sample Return (MSR). Constrained by technology and NASA’s Mars program budget, this effort was broken into three missions. The first would be a rover that would scout, select and store the best samples it could find. Once this was done, NASA would send a second mission to land near the rover, collect the samples and launch it into orbit around Mars. Then a third mission would meet the second in orbit about Mars, collect the samples and launch it back to Earth to be studied. Mars 2020 is the first step in this process. The next two missions will be launched at future Oppositions.
The entire program will cost about $10 Billion to collect 100 grams of carefully selected samples of Mars. Such important samples will take a lot of care to select. NASA just finished a seven-year selection process to decide where the mission should explore. Hundreds of scientists and engineers (including this scientist) worked to find the best mix of exciting science and landing site safety to justify the years of study to come. The choice was made to land near the river delta in Jezero Crater. This delta would have been created with an ancient Martian river emptied into a crater lake. Clay and sand flowed with the water and deposited layer after layer of sediments. These fine-grain clays are great for preserving organics, the number one goal of the mission. On Earth, these deltas are great places to find buried life. They commonly preserve everything from dinosaur bones to massive oil deposits, either of which would be fascinating to find on Mars. Jezero is also near an ancient part of Mars known as Northeast Syrtis. This is one of the oldest parts of Mars and shows minerals altered deep inside the planet and then exposed to the surface. If the Rover lasts long enough, it hopes to explore these rocks, which would be older than any on Earth and may help us understand the earliest continents on our planet and how we may have developed life.
2020 will also see the first Mars missions from the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) who are planning to launch the Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover to test out space technology and provide ongoing planetary observations and landed observations at Utopia Planitia. The UAE is also planning its first Mars mission, an orbiter named Hope Mars. Hope will study the atmosphere and climate of Mars while testing technologies and operations new to the UAE.
This constellation of missions will make 2020 the most internationally active Opposition in history. We hope that all these risky missions succeed and transform our understanding of the red planet. Stay tuned to AstroReality and your MARS Pro App experience as we share the latest discoveries of each mission. Get ready for a great view of Mars, both in the sky as October 13th approaches and anywhere you go with the always beautiful MARS Pro!