On Tuesday morning, Feb. 9, the United Arab Emirates became the first country in the Arab world to successfully place a probe in orbit around Mars. After a seven-month journey, the Hope (Al Amal) spacecraft fired its thrusters for 27 minutes to slow the craft down so the gravity of Mars could capture it into orbit.
Hope will spend one Mars year (687 Earth days) studying the Martian atmosphere from a unique elliptical orbit that takes it both close to and far from the planet, allowing to scientists see how local weather and atmospheric conditions affect global climate patterns.
Of particular interest is the changing climate on Mars. We know through NASA's MAVEN mission (still at Mars) that the sun has slowly stripped away much of the planet's original atmosphere through radiation and solar wind bombardment, a stream of high-speed particles that blows like a steady gale from our star. The thinning atmosphere has caused a once hospitable landscape conducive to flowing water and crater lakes to turn dry and cold.
Hope isn't just about Mars. The mission celebrates the 50th anniversary of the UAE as a country. It's also meant to send a message of hope to the youth of the Arab world that anything is possible. Scientists from Arizona State University, the University of California (Berkeley) and Northern Arizona University contributed to the probe, which was assembled at the Laboratory for Space Physics (LASP) in Colorado and launched from Japan. Mission data will be shared with hundreds of institutions worldwide.
Less than a day later, on Wednesday, Feb. 10, China's Tianwen-1 mission entered Martian orbit. After studying and photographing the landing site for the next few months, the spacecraft will send a lander-rover duo to a location in Utopia Planitia, a vast impact basin located in the planet's northern hemisphere. This is the same region NASA's Viking 2 lander touched down in September 1976. In 2016, NASA announced the discovery of vast reserves of underground ice in Utopia with a volume of water equal to Lake Superior.
The orbiter will study the planet's geology, soil and water-ice distribution as well as serving as a communications relay between the rover and Earth. The rover will examine rocks and soil to determine their composition, look for biomolecules, measure the atmosphere and track the weather. It's equipped with subsurface radar to probe what's out of view, including possible ice.
Last but not least, NASA's Perseverance rover, discussed in this earlier article, joins the fray on Feb. 18. You can watch live coverage of the landing on NASA Live starting at 1:15 p.m. Central Time on that date. The landing will occur at approximately 2:55 p.m.
Three missions to Mars all launched in July 2020 — are we all copycats? Yes! And for a good reason. Every 26 months, Mars and Earth are paired up on the same side of the sun together. A spacecraft launched at this time gets there faster and cheaper (less rocket fuel) compared to other times. The launch window opened from July 30 to Aug. 15, 2020. All three countries took advantage of the alignment to lob probes to that rusty globe that you can see any clear night in February. Just look for a bright, red-colored "star" high in the southwestern sky at nightfall. Can't you just picture all the hubbub?
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Read more of his work at duluthnewstribune.com/astrobob.